Published Sep 26, 2011British IDM duo Plaid (aka Ed Handley and Andy Turner) are just about to release their first album in over five years. We spoke with Plaid member Ed Handley to find out exactly what they've been up to in the past half decade, which as it turns out includes two film soundtracks, building a new music studio in a garden shed, collaborating with British artist Felix Thorn and working on their new album Scintilli.
The new album took a while to come together. Are you happy with how it turned out in the end?
Yeah. This is the strange moment where you have to almost explain it or defend it and I'm obviously slightly doubtful as I've lived with it for quite a long time now and doubt creeps in after that period, but I remember being happy with it for sure! [laughs]
When did you finish it?
We probably finished it in February fully but we sort of finished it a few times and then had a chance to go back so the finishing process has been really stretched out really, so I couldn't actually say when we delivered because we delivered it in stages.
I understand you built a shed to house a studio in and that's partly why the album took so long to make.
We call it a shed but really it's a log cabin, it's like something you'd find in the Swiss Alps but not particularly big. It must be three by three metres inside as we built an internal wall [for soundproofing], so not massive. It's at the bottom of [Plaid member] Andy's garden.
It seems like a very British tradition to have a shed at the bottom of the garden.
Yeah, I think we're taught very early on that you need to potter at the end of the garden. There's the idea of having your tools there but also your porn collection! All your "man" stuff should be in the shed basically. Your model railway collection. You have all the tools and you bang about a bit but nothing is ever actually achieved! [laughs]
The tone of the new album is really quite varied from track to track. Would you agree?
Well, I hope so. There wasn't a deliberate attempt to do that but I like albums where there is a lot of variety but still some continuity so if that's happening then that's a good thing. It was all really written from start to finish in about three years. Obviously not three years' solid work. So there are tracks on there that are quite old so yeah, maybe that's why, because over time we'll update our software and have different interests sonically. We should date the tracks and work out why that's come about! Hopefully it works as an album.
I think it does. You have different tones and feels, for instance "Tender Hooks" has a kind of Caribbean lilt to it and I don't know if it's deliberate but "Unbank" sounds a bit like the Doctor Who theme.
Yeah, we're discovering that people think that and it did occur to us, especially the beginning, has that [imitates bass line]. Yeah that wasn't intentional, it's just that the bass sound is similar to the bass sound they use and the progression of the notes is quite similar and everything about it is Who-ish but we respect Doctor Who so that's no bad thing.
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop [who produced that theme] were amazing in their time.
Exactly. Delia Derbyshire is our heroine. It was a collaboration with Benet Walsh who we've done a few things with in the past and so it just happened. When I first heard it I was thinking Doctor Who but then I sort of forgot that bit so now I'm slightly surprised that everyone is saying Doctor Who. I thought I managed to get rid of most of that.
You guys just released a video for one track off the new album, "35 Summers". How did that come about ― did the director come up with the concept?
Yeah, the director's Richie Burridge, who's helped us with a lot of our artwork over the years and it was his first live action video really. He'd already done parts of it as a competition and he wanted more people to see it so we wrote a piece of music more or less around what he'd done, modified it to fit with what he already had and then he did the final edit, or someone else did actually. The video almost came first with that and then we made the two match up and we got a lot of help from some production houses in London who gave their time for free in the end, 'cause obviously with all that CG and water tanks and things it wasn't really a cheap production but it turned out to be something everyone really got into and chipped in so we're really happy with it.
That's interesting that the song is responding to the video rather than the other way around.
Yeah. Well, we've done a fair bit of soundtrack work recently so it's more like that, where you're presented with a video and presented with a story and you have to supplement the story with your music so it was more that approach than a music video approach.
You've worked with director Michael Arias on a couple of movies over the past few years. How was that experience?
Yeah, one animation and one live action. It was a real pleasure. Quite hectic at moments because deadlines can't be missed with those kind of productions ― there's too much money and too many people involved. Quite difficult but really rewarding and not that we've ever really worked with any other directors but he was great to work with and we're hoping to do some more projects with him. We were very lucky, especially with Tekkon [Japanese anime film, Tekkon Kinkreet] ― it's such a lovely thing to look at, we couldn't really go wrong. We could have written any old stuff; it's such a pretty film that you couldn't really go wrong with it.
You also worked on Heaven's Door which is less anime and more live action, right?
Heaven's Door is live action that probably hasn't really travelled much outside of Japan. It's quite a Japanese film but again really good fun to work on. Slightly more difficult because it was very much reliant on Japanese language whereas with Tekkon obviously the story kind of told itself with pictures, the dialogue was important but not quite as important. The Japanese language thing was a bit more of an issue with Heaven's Door but still, Mike [Arias] did some great direction and got us through it.
How did you feel they turned out?
We're really happy with them. There's a time limit and there are certain other influences. You know, the producer wants something and the director wants something. There are sometimes conflicting demands. It's a difficult process but ultimately we're happy with how it turned out. It's quite different from what we normally do. It's a lot simpler in some respects structurally but I think it works with the film. We just did [a performance of] Tekkon in Sydney [Australia] for a graphics festival at the Opera House and we did it with live players in it so we had to go back and listen to the soundtrack again. We were really happy with that. Again, it's one of those things ― it's such a hectic time that at the end of it you kinda just want to forget it for a bit so we haven't really revisited it but it worked well in Sydney and actually was fun to work with players on it. A live soundtrack with some strings and some percussionists and things like that. We were in the pit. We didn't have a live organ but we should've done! [laughs]
Did either of these soundtracks get a CD release?
Yeah, they both did. Not in England. They are both available as downloads and Tekkon you can get as an import CD I think. Warp sell the download of Heaven's Door, on Bleep, and there was a remix album of the Tekkon stuff with various people. Tekkon was happening at almost the same time as Greedy Baby and then carried on after Greedy Baby so we've been quite busy since then really.
As well as the soundtrack work you've collaborated with a bunch of people over the years. You've worked with Björk and more recently you've collaborated with Felix's Machines.
Yeah, we have. That's sort of ongoing. We've written a few tracks with the machines and we've done a couple of live things with him, one in France and one in London and we're just gonna keep that collaboration going if we can. He's always building new machines and he's also a really good musician, which helps, so for him and for us that thing's evolving all the time. The idea of robotic instruments is really exciting and kind of one of the dreams really of electronic music so we'll keep going with that and see what happens. No definite plans yet but we'll keep going. A lot of it is deconstructed pianos and things so it's this mixture of wood and solenoids. It's great. It's great to look at and it has a very particular sound. His [Felix's] whole thing is acoustic synthesis which is using acoustics but applying the same synthesis techniques as you would with a chip but to an acoustic instrument, which is an interesting idea. Kind of ridiculous but great. If you've got a filter that's a huge, big bit of board. It's sort of nice, it's going the opposite direction everyone would expect, which is miniaturisation and digitalisation.
Are you still doing work with VJ Bob Jaroc live?
No, not so much now. We had about eight years together and was generally time for each of us to try something else. He's up to other things and we've got a slightly different approach with video live now. We're trying some new stuff out now. We're not currently working together but possibly in the future. We did loads with him, which is why we did Greedy Baby, which was the culmination of all this touring and things we've done together and it just felt like it would be good to record it and get something out that represented it. In the event it took a long time to do and it was a really drawn out process and really complicated and took a lot longer than we thought and was extremely expensive but we did it anyway. It was a bit of a folly but we're happy with the final result.
So, what are you doing for visuals on this tour?
We're doing some generative stuff that is directly responsive to the music, which is very simple and very graphic but the music we'll be playing will be quite different from the album because we're reworking all of the tracks and kind of slicing them up a bit and doing something different with that so musically it might be a bit different from how we normally play so the video is taking a backseat, it's gonna be more of a light show really and reactive. Because we'll be improvising a bit more the video will be reacting. Obviously when you have preset videos it's not so good when you're improvising because it can't improvise with you.
What technology are you using for the visuals? Processing?
We're still kind of working it out. We'll be using Quartz Composer mainly mixed in with some VDMX and some sort of Java-based routines that we can load into Quartz Composer. Not Processing, which we should use but it's just getting into the lingo really. We're more of a patch-cord kind of thing. I've played around with Processing but Quartz Composer comes a bit more ready and you can insert Java into it quite effectively so it's more an off-the-shelf kinda thing than Processing. If I had a bit more time I'd love to [use Processing] but I haven't really got that time at moment as I'm sort of making music as well! [laughs]
I guess as well you want to keep things stripped down in terms of personnel on tour?
Nowadays everyone's making their money from gigging, as opposed to selling records. It's true to us to some extent, obviously we've had the films that have helped financially and a few other projects here and there but gigging is more important than it ever used to be, which is odd because actually there are so many people gigging that there's so much competition that actually the fees have dropped as well for a lot of people, so it's an odd one.
Do you enjoy the live performing and going on tour?
Yeah, we do once we're on it, once we're doing it. The thought of it is not always that exciting because it's a sort of upheaval, especially if you've spent a lot of time in the studio, which is quite an isolated experience. The idea of suddenly getting in front of people and trying to make people happy is daunting but after the first gig it all becomes really natural and good fun.
What is your basic set-up for live? What instruments do you take on tour?
In terms of gear we're still sort of working it out for this next set of gigs but we're using iPads as controllers just really because you can go through the pages and have everything animated so you can see exactly what's going on and you've got instant recall so we're using TouchOSC and that kind of thing to build our own interfaces in the iPads. We'll probably have some physical controllers as well just for a bit of tactile response which will more than likely be the little Korg things, which are really cheap enough to travel with and it doesn't matter if they break and they'll be the video laptop running DVMX and Quartz Composer and there'll be laptops using the obligatory Abelton Live [laughs] with Max For Live so we can a few bits and pieces to it and do a bit of generative audio as well with some Max patches but generally Ableton. Ableton with iPads really is what we're going for. It's nice to travel with and it allows for quite a lot of variation while you're playing.