“There’s not enough basslines in techno, it’s all loops and serious drum attacks.” Greg Scarth sat down with the Edinburgh-based producer for a chat about music, gear and why he doesn’t support independence for Scottish techno.
21 years in to his music career, Neil Landstrumm still doesn’t buy in to the idea of doing things by the book. For a start, his career as a producer has run in parallel with a successful career in graphic design, creating 3D work and video for clients including MTV and Grand Theft Auto developers Rockstar Games, as well as a period living in New York and working for a visual artist. (Landstrumm humbly suggests that his graphics career “peaked quite early”.)
As we chat, we go off on tangents about renewable energy (he’s currently studying for a master’s degree on the subject), motorcycle trials (his Montesa 315R takes pride of place alongside his Roland TR-909 in his studio) and forecasts for the global financial markets. The fragmented conversation reflects Landstrumm’s approach to music, which has moved from classic 90s techno for the likes of Tresor and Peacefrog, through hip-hop beats and dubstep-influenced albums for Planet Mu, to his current release for Gesaffelstein and The Hacker’s Zone imprint.
He doesn’t have a Facebook fan page (“I object to those,” he explains), preferring instead to keep his personal profile open so that people can look at his pictures and follow him for updates. He’s keen to discuss the importance of doing things ‘wrong’ when making music – breaking the rules, avoiding falling into the trap of following conventions and norms without questioning them – but he also tells me that he’s always approached music with quite an academic mindset, studying genres with a methodical approach.
The fact this his brand of hardware-driven improvisation has come back into fashion seems to amuse him slightly, but it’s clearly also reignited his passion for the genre. As he repeatedly states: music is fun and it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
Attack: I thought an interesting place to start might be the idea of how your graphics work relates to your music. Or even if it relates to your music. Maybe that’s an assumption?
Neil Landstrumm: Maybe, but I guess I guess I’ve always been interested in just the arts, really. I guess it was when digital production tools for audio came about, like Deck II and Peak, those sort of audio editing tools. Friends of mine in Brighton, Cristian Vogel and Mat Consume, they were very much into what was called multimedia back then. Mat did my record covers quite early on in my career and I always really enjoyed the process of suggesting images and watching how he put them together on the Mac. It was something that I always wanted to do – I understood the methodology of it, it made sense to me. He showed me After Effects, which was the tool that I decided to use. I got heavily involved in digital animation and digital video when I stayed in New York, so it kind of ran alongside my music career in the sense that it became Mac-based. I think when you’re a creative type it’s just whatever the medium is, whether you apply that to music or to graphics.
Did you study graphics at all, or are you self-taught?
Yeah, I’m completely self-taught in both music and visual art – I have absolutely no training whatsoever. I came to the conclusion after being in the design world that you’ve either got an eye, or not. I just do not subscribe to the sort of forced channelling that goes on in art colleges. For some people, it works – the art world is a very specific game, which art colleges prepare you for – but no, I’m completely self-taught. I suppose that leads to the idea of doing things all wrong.
Art education is often about creating quite rigid rules and then breaking them in minor ways, creating this kind of imperfection that I know you like. That’s quite a contrived way to create, in comparison to just breaking the rules from the start.
It becomes a rigid framework, and I’ve always thought that about music. For me it was always about learning by doing, feeling your way, and the joy of plugging the wrong thing into the wrong output, things like that. I always remember the moment – it must have been about ’91 – when I had a 303, a 606, a 707 and maybe an 808 or something like that, but I didn’t have a mixer, I just had this shitty little box designed for mixing four guitars into one or something. I remember plugging the 303 into the wrong socket of my mate’s guitar amp and it was just so overdriven. I was like wow! I had no idea that was how you did it – nobody had taught me anything. It was all just mucking around.
In some ways it’s always been the mistakes that make the best tracks. I kind of noticed that as I met more and more producers who took it really seriously, who were really hung up on stuff. I was kind of like, Yeah, but you don’t actually do anything. You’re more about wiring your patch bay the right way. My studio’s always been a bit of a mess, things are half broken, but it just seems to work.
It’s a paradox of the way so many people work these days, that you get hung up on doing things the right way and getting a clean sound, then if you want it to sound dirty you have to create that artificially. You could just do things wrong and make it sound dirty from the word go instead of adding it in later.
Yeah, I’ve straddled both eras: doing stuff on 24-track desks and doing stuff on tape with four-tracks, trying to work out how on earth you could get it on tape without sounding completely shit. People now want the sound of how it is on tape, it’s quite a bizarre loop. We were trying to get away from that, then when digital production came along it was impossible to make it sound crap. When Logic came along, or Ableton – all these tools are amazing but they’ve made it awfully clinical and sterile. I use Logic to multi-track stuff, but I’ve never given up on that idea of splitting up outputs from an Akai and that kind of stuff.
You’ve stayed loyal to certain things over the course of your career that have become trendy again in recent years. Things like analogue hardware and live performance.
Yeah, it’s been the backbone of my music. It was always live first, then recordings of live takes. Me and my mate Toby – Tobias Schmidt – and Cristian Vogel, it was always like we’d jam it out live, then maybe record three versions of it and take the best one. It’s funny how it’s all come back in fashion.
Is that still how you like to work?
Funnily enough, no. I kind of felt like the era of all that gear – 909s and all that – I just got really tired of it. It’s all just the same sounds. I still play live that way, but once I really mastered the layout of Logic and being able to have a bit more control over the production within DAWs, I kind of switched to that. I do trend to track stuff in a very live way, so I’ll build up four- or eight-bar loops of things and then I’ll lay it out. Sometimes I’m conscious that it’s not capturing exactly what I’m trying to do, but it gives you a lot more control. I know that’s what a lot of people are trying to emulate now, that sort of live jam thing, but it’s like anything: once you’ve done it to death, you don’t really want to do it any more.
I came to the conclusion that there was absolutely nothing else that I could do with the 303 that interested me.
Yeah, it’s like anything: it’s natural that these things go in cycles as new groups of young producers discover these sounds and ways of working, but if you’ve been doing it since the early 90s there’s a limit to how far you can keep going with the classic 909, 303 kind of sounds.
Yeah, I really got fed up of the 303. I kind of loved it to death. It was actually one of the first things that I got but I really came to the conclusion that there was absolutely nothing else that I could do with that machine that interested me. To punish myself, I sold it. In some ways I’ve always been into acid that wasn’t made on the 303. Some of the best records don’t have a 303 in them, like Ecstasy Club, they’re all 101s and Jupiters.
I really like Dave Smith’s Evolver, the kind of tiny matrix thing – I think that makes more interesting acid than the 303 does. It’s the sequencer that’s the cool thing about the 303, but it just became a bit of a piece that you have lying around. I decided that I was going to hone my studio down to the core pieces that I love and not have such an analogue graveyard.
You had a pretty hefty collection of stuff, didn’t you? What’s the setup now?
There’s two distinct setups, one for live and one for studio. The studio setup is the Jupiter-6, which I bought in a pawn shop in 1994 in Edinburgh and I think is my favourite piece, a Jupiter-8, an OSCar, a Sequential Circuits Pro-One… The 808 is kind of the core to trigger the analogues. What else have I got? I have a Crane Song STC-8 outboard mastering compressor. I have a 909, but that just collects dust. I’ve got a nice Midas desk, and I’ve got a DX200, which I quite like.
That kind of flies under the radar a little bit.
It does. It sold terribly. For some reason, Yamaha decided to put a one-bar sequencer in it, but it’s the heart of two or three DX7s, so it’s incredibly powerful as a module. It’s so difficult to use – FM synthesisers all are – but it’s so powerful for bass, particularly the sort of Detroity techno stuff.
I always come back to the core of the 808, the Jupiter-6 and the Pro-One.
You’ve still got a pretty decent selection of hardware then, even after stripping it down?
Yeah, it’s kind of the big pieces and I never tire of them. I always come back to the core of the 808, the Jupiter-6 and the Pro-One. The Jupiter-8, actually, although it’s a lovely piece and I think it’s the best looking synth, it’s a bit limited. It’s lovely and rich and does all those very 80s synth-pop sounds and can sound quite Radiophonic Workshop, but it can’t self-oscillate. It’s almost like it can’t get over the point you want it to.
It’s developed such a reputation that the prices have gone ballistic over the last few years.
Yeah. Mine came from Manchester and it actually had a bit of heritage in that scene, but it was absolutely mint. It sat in a flight case for 15 years and basically it’s almost trebled in price. But it’s not quite as amazing as everyone thinks it is. It’s good at certain things, but I just prefer the 6. The 6 is very sci-fi and very out-there and liquid-sounding, but it can also do very sweet, harmonic stuff; the 8 is much more orchestral and bleepy, very pure-sounding, but it just can’t get that sci-fi thing going.
That’s the core of the studio anyway. I’ve had lots of other stuff, all the hip-hop stuff like the SP1200 and MPC60. I used to have a real drum machine collection, but I’ve got a mate who works at Native and gives me these drum sample packs – or Goldbaby’s ones where they’ve spent days putting drum machines through all this amazing outboard. I’ve got an 808, but I can’t make an 808 sound that good. Apart from the sequencing, which you can’t replace, you might as well use these samples, because it sounds better.
The Goldbaby samples are hard to beat.
They’re stunning. I was fascinated with Chicago for years so in the mid 90s I researched and bought all the machines that the Chicago guys were using, things like the Casio RZ-1. I always maintain that some of the best music – not just techno or dance – is made on fuck all. Like Suicide, for example, it’s just made on a cheap synth, a kind of organ drum machine and a couple of effects, but it’s the ideas and the power and potency of the music. Or some Chicago classic, like ‘Work That Motherfucker’, it’s one machine!
That’s the classic example. Just the RZ-1.
It’s one machine and a good idea. Or some of Armani’s stuff, or Cajmere, it’s an MPC60 and a DX100. It’s nothing! And they did it in bedrooms with headphones and crap mixers. I remember meeting some of these original producers in the 90s, when they were coming through Edinburgh to play Pure. I always in my head thought people had these huge studios and they were like: ‘No, it’s in my mum’s kitchen and it’s an SP12 and a cheap mixer.’ It filled me with just this kind of like awe that you could do this stuff with nothing, you know?
It’s a good reminder of what’s important.
Yeah, a lot of people get obsessed with having the right piece of equipment. No, you just need to have a couple of bits and know them really well.
It’s interesting that you refer to the MPC and SP1200 as hip-hop instruments. Do you pick particular gear based on the type of music you’re planning to make?
Yeah, I suppose I do. I got turned on to the SP12 when I went to New York and it’s an interesting piece because it kind of bridges hip-hop culture and house, garage and rave. It was the Todd Terry machine, Frankie Bones did all his stuff on the SP1200… It’s such a pain in the arse to use but it just has that feel. That’s kind of the problem with DAWs: when you open the program you don’t really have any character to begin with, it’s such a blank slate. When you spend an afternoon with an SP1200 and a bunch of records, before you know it you’ve got a bunch of disks full of character.
It’s limited but it focuses you on the essentials, even more so than MPCs, I think.
If you look back at acid house and early 90s production in proto-jungle, they were all working in 12-bit samplers with 10 seconds or less. I met Marcus Salon, Outlander, who did a lot of production for R&S Records. He was saying that he remember when the S1000 was out, what he wanted was the keyboard version. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a picture of the keyboard version but it’s enormous, like a grand piano with a sampler on the side. So Renaat cut him a cheque for god knows how much, he went out and bought it and that afternoon he wrote the Outlander record. He describes it as the sound of the euphoria of getting that much sample time, and the energy that was released in being able to express his ideas. These tools sort of defined what could be done. The SP1200 has this thing where it overdrives really easily and you get this kind of cracking sound, which you hear on a lot of early 90s east coast hip-hop.
The hip-hop influence on UK techno is quite interesting. If you talk to people like Kirk Degiorgio and Ben Sims they rave about the Street Sounds electro compilations, but you were into it a bit later?
Yeah, it wasn’t what brought me into it in the same way as them, because I’m just a wee bit younger, so it was more the Manchester rave thing that brought me into it. For me it was more when I went to New York and immersed myself in that culture then I backtracked and really got it.
What kind of stuff?
All the really early stuff like BDP and Marley Marl, then Kool Keith I’ve always loved, Ultramagnetic MCs. I’ve always loved the darker stuff. It was almost like being schooled. The other type of music that’s always really influenced me is dub. That Jamaican influence on British dance music is so strong.
Yeah, it always crops up every few years as an obvious reference point in a new genre. How did you get into dubstep in the first place?
I was a bit bored with the way techno had ended up. It had become very stale and limited in its ideas. Then in the early 2000s John Peel started playing Jon E Cash and all this eight-bar and sublow – it wasn’t even called dubstep then – and I was just like, ‘Wow, this sounds like the early Sheffield stuff’. I felt that what I could do was fuse that with my passion for British rave. That was the first album on Planet Mu.
It’s interesting that a lot of dubstep moved towards rave and techno a few years later. It went the opposite direction to you.
Yeah, it was really refreshing to see a new generation embracing it and enjoying it when they didn’t really know what they were referencing. It was really fresh.
How quickly did it spread up to Scotland?
It didn’t really extend up quickly but you could follow it through the internet and all that. I got turned on to Digital Mystikz quite quickly. I met Mala when he came up here to play Glasgow and there was like 15 people there, it was just ridiculous. I was kind of disappointed about how dubstep ended up but it was pretty predictable really. I kind of felt like it was in safe hands and then something went wrong, and I don’t know what. I never got to meet Loefah, but I’d love to know what somebody who was really at the centre of it thought.
It all became quite silly, really quickly. Caspa and Rusko’s Fabriclive CD was a real line in the sand, in retrospect.
Yeah, it got kind of like, ‘Who can make the most silly noise?’.
Which has happened in techno over the years, too.
Yeah, it becomes this kind of nuclear war of who can be harder. With maturity, I’ve kind of learned that techno really doesn’t have to be fast to be heavy, and once it’s fast it’s such a turn-off for a lot of people.
Your new EP for Zone is generally slightly slower tempos, but that’s an element of your output that really fits in with the label’s sound.
I’ve probably been quite fortunate in that I’ve managed to carve my own sound out of everything I’ve done. The Zone one kind of brings together elements I’ve always used. At the moment I’m doing very much a techno live act, based on quite fun dancefloor tracks, like the Peacefrog stuff I did in the 90s. It’s actually been quite refreshing going back to that, not trying to be so experimental and weird, just doing something fun.
I was listening to the recording of your set on RIOT. Fun is definitely a good word for that one.
Yeah, it’s just sort of like… basslines. There’s not enough basslines in techno, it’s all loops and serious drum attacks. No matter where I play – New Year I was in Belgrade, and Christmas I was in Munich – these are countries that haven’t had a lot of that stuff and they absolutely respond to it. Girls love a bassline! I’ve always flown the flag for British stuff in that way. I love throwing in a bit of garage and grime and Ragga Twins and stuff, the bits and pieces that make up the rich fabric of the UK dance sound. I’m proud to be part of that.
So you don’t believe in independence for Scottish techno then?
[Laughing] Well, I am an independence supporter, but when it comes to the cultural output I’m proud to be associated.
Finally, I just wanted to ask a little about how today’s techno scene compares to when you started out. How many albums were you selling in the mid 90s?
When I was doing the albums on Tresor, at its peak it was like 14,000 copies of stuff. [Laughing] Even for my little, shitty genre, it’s quite a lot of records!
That must have been a pretty decent chunk of your income at that point?
It was huge. Those were the days where I’d sold a lot of records so I could command a good advance, then there was the bonus of the return from the sold companies, then the publishing, then all the gigs to mop up. All that has gone. Mike [Paradinas, Planet Mu boss], bless him, does still give an advance – he does quite well, to be fair – but the last album I did was two years of work and I had to fight to get 500 quid for it. That is some comedown from how it was.
What kind of advances were you getting in the 90s?
At my peak, I got about 10 grand, then there’d be more on the back of that. You’d get the advance and you hadn’t done anything. It’s kind of like Bowie said: without that patronage of the arts, how can you ever innovate and shake it up? When you don’t have that, you end up with what you have today, which is a whole load of mediocre shit. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of good musicians and plenty of good ideas out there, but they don’t get the push and the patronage they need.
Did you see the thing Terrence Dixon said a few weeks ago on Facebook about how if you have a day job you’re just a hobbyist and can’t be taken seriously as a producer?
Any creative job, you’ve got the administrative bit of it and the actual bit where you’re doing it, but a lot of it is just thinking and dicking around time. If you don’t have that dicking around time, you don’t generally push it forward and you don’t come up with that vibe and interaction. I find it incredibly difficult to do music full-time, but I see what he means. Either way, I’m kind of positive about music at the moment. I’ve met a lot of the younger generation recently, because of the fact the 90s techno thing’s become cool again, and I’m confident it’s in safe hands.