As someone who has had all of the aforementioned crops at some stage in his career, it follows that when it comes to techno, Luke Slater has pretty much seen, heard and done it all. So it's unsurprising that at this stage in his career, he's more enamoured with the resurgence of tough, smart techno than he is by some of the scene's more fashion-orientated recent divulgences.
"There's a real move towards the original ideas again, separating real 'is what it is' parties from the overdone glitz thing," says Slater when I catch up with him at new London club Cable, where he's due to play in a little under 20 minutes. After a series of delays, re-schedules, and further delays, we've finally made contact, and have been ushered into a brightly-lit office. We're situated about ten feet from the main floor's roof-hanging speakers, and umpteen staff busy themselves around us. It's hardly the ideal interview situation. But Luke seems in good spirits, leaning in close to the recorder like an amiable co-conspirator. Does he think fashion has any place in underground dance music?
"Not musically, but hey, if you wanna be a fashion designer, then forget music and be a fashion designer. I think I'd be quite scared doing a gig where everyone was wearing the same thing."
While never quite reaching the level of celebrity clothes horse, it's true that not so long ago, Luke Slater—responsible for some of the most lauded, richly-textured techno of the '90s, not to mention numerous leftfield excursions under various monikers—looked poised to assail the mainstream with his decidedly non-techno, band-centred Alright on Top album. However, it didn't quite work out that way.
"[Alright on Top] totally split people," he admits. "See, I didn't realise quite the scale of the fan base there was for what I was doing. The album kinda proved that there was this really massive fan base for [the techno] stuff. I was coming in thinking, you know, that people were ready for diverging. But in a way, I was wrong. The album got to some different kinds of fans, but it was leading me into the mainstream, and those ways of thinking—and suddenly, I just didn't want to be in that world. It wasn't my world, and I couldn't do it."
Slater's been very much back in "his world" of late, returning after a five year break to his ultra-techno Planetary Assault Systems alter ego. His new album Temporary Suspension is, as you'd expect, a gimmick-free, straight-ahead barrage of propulsive rhythms and futurist abstractions, which both recounts and re-imagines the unbridled power of classic '90s Brit techno. It also happens to be the first full-length on Ostgut Tontrager released by a non-German artist—a symbol, inadvertent as it may be, of the cyclical nature of techno and its variously-hyped geographical hotspots over the years. Does he think that the Berghain "sound," and the ever-swelling tide of hype that trails it, has played a key part in the current resurgence of classic-sounding techno?
"I think that if it is happening—and I can't honestly say I've noticed—I hope that it's because of the new music coming out. I hope it's not because of everything that's gone before. Techno is what jazz was—it's never gonna go away, it forms the roots of a lot of music… but I don't truly know what's going on the scene too much..."
At this point, Luke's voice trails off, and despite his warm, genial demeanour, I can't help thinking that he's not entirely comfortable. It's been previously insinuated that he prefers to communicate with journalists by e-mail, and I start to wonder if his antipathy towards face-to-face interviews had something to do with the constant "re-scheduling" of our meeting. The hectic environment and the tight time schedule certainly don't help matters, but nonetheless, I sense a degree of reticence—to the point that when Luke's manager reminds us it's time to wrap up, I'm left feeling that I've missed something vitally important.
As it turns out, I'm correct.
The many faces of Luke Slater
As Morganistic, Slater only released a handful of cuts—but among those was the album Fluids Amniotic, still widely praised today as a benchmark techno long-player. Regularly featuring in the sets of Hood and Mills, Morganistic's dark, rumbling minimalism was, as the album title suggests, the sonic equivalent of being trapped in the murky, viscous fluids of some sinister alien womb.
The 7th Plain
Generally, though not exclusively the alias reserved for Slater's leftfield and ambient excursions, older techno-heads will surely recall the cover of My Yellow Wise Rug, featuring the then-impressive Magic Eye imaging technique to obscure an picture of Slater in some kind of meditative pose. Nonetheless, most connoisseurs tend to praise the masterfully-constructed The 4 Cornered Room as the definitive 7th Plain release.
Uncompromising, spiky dancefloor experiments tend to be the defining characteristic of Clementine releases, most famously in the form of "Breaking Point," a highlight of CJ Bolland's DJ Kicks mix from 1995. Signed to Holland's Djax-Up-Beats, Slater reached his fiercest extremes in the space of just three seminal releases.
As Slater's popularity surged towards the end of the '90s, his work under his own name really started to take shape, culminating with his impressively broad Wireless in 1999. Combining classy techno with widescreen arrangements and dexterous breakbeats, it's generally seen as a more accomplished release than 2002's Alright on Top, which while critically successful, failed to ignite the passions of his hardcore followers.
Planetary Assault Systems
Until relatively recently a joint project with long-standing cohort Al Sage (AKA Hulal), PAS was the most accessible, straight-ahead alias for Slater's prolific productions. Often cited as a key precursor to "stadium" techno, tracks like "Gated," "Booster" and "Into the Night" heralded a new era of techno bombast, pushing the murky experimentalism of mid-'90s purism into brighter, bolder realms.
Thanks to Nick Craddock, Alex Downey, and Toby Frith.
But it's a question about the real reasons for his long-term break from PAS, and its subsequent resurrection, that provokes a response I hadn't expected at all: "I think it was time. Time is always the key. I wish I could tell you here that I had some grand plan, but the truth is I don't, and never did.
"The absolute truth is actually that around 2003 nearly every factor in my life changed very quickly, and on the personal side, very destructively. I lost people close to me, and things began to lose any kind of meaning. Ultimately I was diagnosed with a form of manic depression, or bi-polar as they call it, which I was pretty shocked at. It was a messy time—I went to so much psychotherapy I think I could probably be one myself now. I discovered a new world of doctors and services, pills, mental conditions, insights, cognitive this, cognitive that, reflection, forgiveness, acceptance…
"It was a journey in itself. I didn't write at all, and didn't feel like it. I worked through that, and actually feel it was worth every minute, on reflection. I think in truth I've always been a depressive, but I'm also someone who's happy having that depressive side to me. I think I would be more depressed if I was totally happy all the time. I'd certainly feel bad if others weren't as happy, and that would make me depressed. I knew Planetary would return when it felt ready."
Surprised more by Luke's openness than by his actual diagnosis, I think back to our initial meeting, and the undercurrent of uneasiness. Certainly, Slater is an assured, confident character—but it's clear that he hasn't always been so, and that the on-form DJ and producer we see today has encountered more than his fair share of dark times. I go over the recording of our interview again, to see if the disjointed material I'd previously discarded has taken on any new significance in light of Slater's email. I find the section where I ask if he's happy with the way the new PAS album has turned out. "It flowed easily—it just felt right," he says. "I'm very happy… as happy as I can be—I'm sort of…"
"Yeah… actually no, not a perfectionist—no, definitely not. I'm a cross between… Jack Dee [famously morose British comedian] and Keith Richards! [laughs] But yeah, I'm quite happy—I'm happier now than I have been in a long time."
Summing himself up better than I could have hoped to, for he does indeed commingle Dee's deadpan wit with Richards' fried, psychedelic eccentricity, Luke grins again. After all that's come and gone in twenty years—the hype, the heroes, the hair styles—is techno still is his greatest musical love?
"My sort of techno is. Techno is the foundation stone for modern music. It's spawned many offspring, some good and some bad. It's constantly evolving… I hope I set some of those foundation stones straight, and I hope to set a few more along the way. I hope to have some fun, too."