For this month’s feature interview, we spoke with Luke Slater on why he doesn’t see technological advancements as the primary method of moving techno forward.
Since his debut release in 1989, Luke Slater has become a central protagonist in the story of techno. He’s produced a wide variety of music under an equally large array of aliases, including 7th Plain, L.B. Dub Corp, and Planetary Assault Systems. It’s the later pseudonym under which Slater released his vaunted Planetary Funk EP series on Peacefrog Records throughout the ‘90s — records that are considered classics of the genre, and continue to make an impact two decades later.
Slater also released several EPs and albums under his own name during that time, including the X-Tront series on Peacefrog, and the 16-track Freek Funk on Nova Mute, which touches on techno, ambient, minimal and electro. But Slater has never stopped producing, or experimenting, even mingling with the mainstream on 2002’s Alright On Top, a divisive album that NME described as an “outrageously good electro-pop romp,” but forced upon Slater the realization that the mainstream was not his world, nor would it be.
It’s under Planetary Assault Systems (PAS) that Slater has been most active recently. Following his 2016 album Arc Angel on Ostgut Ton, which completed a series of three albums for the Berghain-affiliated label, he released as PAS two extended EPs, Straight Shooting on his own Mote-Evolver, and Plantae on Ostgut, in 2019. He also returned to Ibiza as PAS for the first time since 2013, a place he admits isn’t necessarily “techno central,” and never really has been.
“Sometimes I wonder if they know what hit them when Planetary comes along,” Slater says with nonchalant deadpan, referring to his audience at Cocoon Ibiza this summer. “I kind of like that. It’s like, I don’t know — like an edge of non-compliance. So yeah, it’s good.”
If Slater finds Ibiza’s audiences occasionally unsteady, he knows Cocoon — the long-running Amnesia-based party and label helmed by Sven Väth — sits on solid ground. “They’re a great bunch, the Cocoon lot,” he says. Slater’s second live performance as PAS at Cocoon this year was recorded, and released last month on Cocoon Recordings as Live at Cocoon Ibiza. It’s 80 minutes of laser-focused, tunneling techno, occasionally punctuated by an otherworldly saxophone melody. “Tim the Sax Player,” Slater answers when I ask about the sounds. Tim went down well in Ibiza, but Slater is experienced enough to know that he won’t get the same reaction everywhere. “I’m at Berghain this weekend, and suffice to say Tim won’t be with me,” he says with a muted laugh. But Slater is also no fan of permanence. He’s constantly updating gear, or reconsidering the utility of performance extras like Tim.
Towards the end of the last decade, Slater was experimenting with 3D visuals, which were projected onto a mesh curtain in front of the stage, giving the appearance of images floating freely in space. “The thing was, you couldn’t have any smoke in the club, because then it didn’t work,” Slater says. “The settings had to be exactly right.” But one night an errant cigarette from someone in the crowd set the mesh on fire, and Slater realized he’d had enough. After two years of visuals, it was time for something new. “Keeps it spicy,” Slater says.
If people want to make a lot of money by throwing large techno festivals, so be it. Just be honest about your intentions.
His live show as PAS has been evolving almost as long as Slater has — musically anyway. In the ‘90s, he toured with “like half a ton” of gear: “There was four SH-101s, a Jupiter-6, a 24 channel desk, a DX7, a vocoder, and everything was linked up via MIDI,” Slater says. Traveling with and setting up all that equipment was enormously taxing on Slater. But he didn’t immediately embrace the laptop revolution. “I was actually a bit disappointed. I thought, well, that doesn’t look as good as four SH-101s and a Jupiter-6. There’s not a lot to see there.” He took a break from live performances for a time. But as new bits of gear slowly began to hit the market, he returned, continually retooling his show since.
Clearly, Slater is enamoured with music technology. Not only can he effortlessly rattle off his equipment list from a 20-years-previous tour, but he subsequently rattles off every piece of kit used in making his early Peacefrog records: “An Allen & Heath GS3, which is a 16 channel analogue board; an Akai S950, a TR-909, a chord reverb and a Korg Mono/Poly, a DX7, a Digital Audio Tape machine, and a pair of NS-10s,” he says. Missing from the equation was a compressor. “I mean at the time, I didn’t even know what a compressor was,” he says. Which is why the desk was so important.
“To get it to sound right, you had to turn it up. You could change the sound of an instrument by driving it. And by the end, you’d have the faders nearly all the way down the bottom of the track, but you’d have the gain a long way up. And then the EQ would be your filters. That became standard practice to get a certain sound. And pretty much all those old Peacefrog records were written in that way, with just an Atari as a sequencer.”
That “certain sound” is today commonly understood to be the sound of ‘90s techno. Slater is keenly aware that this overdriven, raw, and rave-inspired style is back in vogue. “If you want that sound, that’s an easy way to do it,” he helpfully offers after detailing his former setup. I posit that there’s probably a ‘90s techno plugin available, eliciting a giggle. “Chuck it through that, it sounds like a ‘90s record!” he jokes. But Slater has moved on from the ‘90s, carried forward by an urge to never repeat himself, and a sense that his fans expect more from him after so many years of creative success. It sounds like a daunting prospect, but Slater seems to relish the challenge.
Despite his unabashed love of technology, Slater doesn’t see technological advancements as the primary method of moving techno forward, contrasting him with some of his high-profile colleagues. “When it comes to music, I kind of revert back to mud and leaves,” he says. The machines are simply a conduit. Without raw, meaningful human emotions flowing through them, the best machines in the world are unlikely to produce great music. Slater brings up New York City street drummers, banging on old pots and paint cans. “I mean, the rhythms these guys have got — it blows my mind.”
Slater isn’t completely cut off from his old self. Sure, his life is very different these days. Less wild, more focused. But his under-reliance on technology when crafting albums like Arc Angel means he leans on old habits, like imagining a world of sci-fi fantasy well beyond our own in order to provide the musical escapism his fans have come to expect. After all, the fans are what Slater sees as the throughline connecting his old music and new. The fact that they can find a cohesive link between ‘90s Peacefrog and ‘10s Ostgut says everything for Slater. “It’s pretty incredible, really, because that’s like, 25 years or something?”
He’s also amazed at the modern techno scene, and doesn’t harbour many of the resentments so often found amongst the older, back-in-my-day crowd. But that has less to do with what’s changed, and more to do with how Slater views those changes. If people want to make a lot of money by throwing large techno festivals, so be it. Just be honest about your intentions. This is, after all, the music business. “And once you get your head around that, I think it you can actually learn a lot about whether you even want to be involved in the music industry,” he says. His only real quarrel is with the divide between art and money, which he now thinks runs too deep: you’re either shallow and incapable of introspection, or live for art and nothing else. Slater, on the other hand, sits somewhere in the middle — he cares deeply about his art, but he never particularly wanted to play the role of starving artist. I suggest that finding the middle ground is necessary for the type of longevity Slater has maintained. “I think it is,” he says.
What seems to inspire Slater more than anything about today’s scene is its breadth and size. He’s amazed, and seems justifiably proud, at just how big Amsterdam Dance Event is. “I think there’s over 100 parties,” he guesses. “It’s 1000 events across the week,” I correct him. “Wow. 1000. Wow. So when I look at that, I see a city totally consumed for that weekend by some form of dance music or electronic music, in whatever form, whether you like it or not. And I just think that’s kind of brilliant in a completely mad way.”
In his time, Slater has watched as the infatuation with dance music in countries like Holland, and so many others around the world, has risen, disappeared, and sometimes returned again stronger than ever. While today’s scene is far from perfect, Slater’s outlook is a warm, optimistic reminder that it’s come a very long way. Due in no small part, to people like him.
Planetary Assault Systems’ “Live at Cocoon Ibiza” is out now on Cocoon Records. Find him on Facebook, Twitter & Soundcloud.
Chandler Shortlidge is a dance music journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.