Talking about those personal connections with the performers, it sounds as though the album was largely recorded as live?
Yeah, that was important. When I do the club night and we do the live sets they’re all live – if I just press play on Ableton or Maschine, nothing happens. It’s all about programming things on the fly, in the moment, and creating things as they happen – I love that spontaneity. I guess that’s bringing the jazz mentality into the way I play electronic music, so when it came to recording the album it was the same thing: we’d have the compositional structure and probably not much of a game plan once we got past the introduction. I’d be programming the beats as we were recording, then sampling the horn players or my piano or the vocalist. It was very much a live process. I wanted to have an electronic aesthetic but also a very organic and live aspect, so the question was how to meet that in the middle. There was a little bit of post-production, mainly because if I’d left everything at full length we’d have never got it onto one album, but I really tried to retain as much of that live integrity as I could. When people come and see the live show, that’s how it happens live.
It really comes across in the timing. It’s got that human feel to it, which usually doesn’t come across in rigidly quantised electronic music.
Oh, for real. You listen to Kraftwerk and there’s nothing acoustic there but it definitely sounds human to me. I think it’s essential to have that humanity within the electronics. It’s almost a sci-fi thing: are we controlling them or are they controlling us? I think it’s really important that you hear the person through the machine.
Why do you think people always feel the need to point out your musical skills? ‘Mark de Clive-Lowe, the producer who’s also a really talented piano player…’
Kraftwerk's music definitely sounds human to me. I think it’s essential to have that humanity within the electronics.
[Laughing] Is that a rhetorical question?
No, I’m curious to hear your take on it.
Honestly, it’s because a lot of people who make electronic music aren’t musicians in the traditional sense of the word. Or they’re doing it as a reaction against their musicianship. I’ve definitely been there. Where I am right now is definitely full circle having gone through that process and re-embraced the piano on a more musical level – traditional form and function – but I’m a huge advocate for people being able to play their instruments. If the computer’s fixing everything you play and you make some amazing piece of music, then one night you’re at your friend’s house and all they have is some beat-up piano and they’re like, ‘Man, play that tune!’ and you’re like, ‘Where’s the MIDI?’ it’s sad.
Take an artist or an illustrator who works on a computer, I guarantee they’ll pick up a pencil and paper and still be able to draw. For me these things should be more normal. I know for a fact through my own process that for any artist who wants to evolve beyond their wildest dreams it’s about learning about music on a traditional level.
What was your own reaction against your musicianship?
When I moved to London in 1998 I became a complete Judas to the piano and to jazz music. If I was hired for a session and the producer wanted piano on the track I wouldn’t allow it. If someone called me up to play a trio gig I’d refuse. I was running away from the instrument that I grew up playing and the idiom that I passionately followed when I was younger. It was a conscious desire to deconstruct the learned musician – I wanted to create on a more instinctual and visceral level rather than from an educated point of view. I wanted to unlearn the rules so that I could react to something and do something because it felt good rather than the rules said it would work.
DJing actually helped me with that as well. You can have two different tracks in the mix, creating this whole other sound, and yet sometimes if you look at them theoretically maybe they shouldn’t work together. That whole idea really excited me. I guess it was a matter of turning my back on one thing in order to be open to another. Then I was seeing people from Lemon D and Dillinja to IG Culture, Bugz In The Attic, DJ Spinna making this amazing music using samples and drum machines and they weren’t trained musicians. That blew my mind. At the same time you had all these music students regurgitating the past without pushing it forward, so to me it was kind of obvious what I had to do.
I became a complete Judas to the piano and jazz. If a producer wanted piano on a track I wouldn’t allow it. If someone called me up to play a trio gig I’d refuse.
So it was really a long process of finding your feet as an artist?
Yeah, absolutely. It was about accepting what I grew up doing and how I evolved as a producer, then bringing that all back into one picture together.
How do you look back on those broken beat days now?
Before it became a genre it was just an ethos. It was the same spirit that I love in A Tribe Called Quest, Quincy Jones, Parliament-Funkadelic, D’Angelo, Marvin Gaye, whatever. To me there’s a thread which runs through all that music, and that’s what it had. That’s what I want to retain more than anything. There’s a track on the album called ‘Brukstep’ which is definitely a head nod to that kind of time.
Those who know know that it affected and influenced and inspired so much other music. There’s a lot of stuff we wouldn’t have today, from most bass music to Calvin Harris. It wouldn’t exist today without that music. I don’t think the wider listener knows – and they don’t need to know – but I know that and it’s amazing to have been part of a community which contributed on such a fundamental level to the progress of music in that way.