|Beyond the laptop
RA travelled to this year's Ether festival in London to spend time with a group of artists—Mount Kimbie, Apparat, Bass Clef, the Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble—who warp the perception of live dance music.
Live dance music has an image problem. Since the advent of Ableton at the beginning of the '00s, a generation of producers have been performing renditions of their studio tracks using a controller and a laptop. This has, understandably, proven to be the cleanest, simplest and most cost-effective method of delivering club music in a club environment. The issue, then, is not the software itself, but what artists are perceived to be doing with the software. Without the familiar actions associated with playing an instrument—strumming a guitar, banging a drum—an audience is often left wondering what exactly it is they are seeing.
In spending time at this year's Ether festival in London, we wanted to look at some of the ways in which acts are operating beyond this now archetypal image of live dance music performance. Apparat and Mount Kimbie found that distilling their respective studio sounds and presenting themselves as a band has opened them up to completely new audiences. Bass Clef—solo and alongside Ekoplekz as Ekoclef—favours improvisation, utilizing acoustic and electronic instruments with an emphasis on performance. And Brandt Brauer Frick can often be found operating as a ten-piece ensemble, where synthesizers are in the minority next to harps, cellos and tubas. It's important to point out that none of the artists we spoke with recognized a dichotomy between those who do and not use laptops; their approaches were borne only from a desire to break the mould.
Dom Maker: Recently we've gone through a bit of an overhaul in terms of the way that we're actually approaching [the live set], and the way we're viewing it. For the initial releases that we did—the EPs and the first album—we were quite keen to cut it down to just me and Kai, and try and do everything ourselves, and basically try to recreate the songs as they were on the record. We found that every time we approached a song, or every time we tried to embellish a song and develop it, we found that we were going a bit bigger in terms of the way we were presenting it. I think we became a little bit…well, we played out so much, that we kind of lost interest in that style of set really.
Since we've been writing new material, we've tried to reinterpret and change how we actually do things live. We got a drummer in for our show [at Ether] and we've obviously been doing new material, and it sounds quite different from what we've done before. So it's really been perfect to try and make it more of a band experience as opposed to just two guys up there with electronic equipment. Obviously the electronics are still there, but I think we're quite cautious to try and make it more live than it ever has been.
We got a good friend of ours who's playing percussion, drums. On a lot of the new material, Kai's been singing. We've got the introduction of a bit of bass guitar. We're still working with the same kind of equipment, but it's certainly set out differently and it feels a bit more free in terms of the addition of drums allowing you to not have to sequence things all the time. It's great to be able to just jam like a band and work through songs, which has been quite important in the writing process anyway.
I remember there was a point where we actually stopped playing club shows sandwiched between DJs, and started being introduced into the festival stages that were mainly populated by bands from other genres. And then [with] the headline shows we had we were quite aware, and made quite a big effort to not solely be supported by DJs. The XX: that was a big turning point for us, playing with a band like that. In terms of our reach as an act, [the type of show we do] must have done us some favours and hopefully won us a few people over from other areas.
Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble
Paul Frick: In the beginning, we wanted to play as live as possible but we noticed that we can't, our music has too many elements to really play them all live at once. So, we already had the idea of playing with ten people, but first we tried to figure out a club set up. Daniel played drum pads, all the sounds in it were self-recorded but they were triggered electronically and Jan played, and also plays, mainly keyboard, a Nord Wave. And then I have like elements of our music in a Korg Groove Box, Korg ESX. So that was the first set-up. And it worked. We started in techno clubs so it also needed to be a bit like almost functional in a way.
[The ensemble set-up is] violin, cello, trombone, tuba, harp, piano, a Moog synthesiser. Then drums, various percussion like marimba, vibraphone and timpani, so three percussion players in total. And sometimes we have a guest singer, like [at Ether] we had Erika Janunger from Sweden.
Daniel Brandt: Definitely we didn't want to use the laptop on stage—that was one main thing. We wanted to be able to really play live. There are of course good live acts who mainly just use a laptop, but at the same time it doesn't really feel live and you can't see, as the audience, what this person's actually doing…The music can sound complicated but then he maybe just switches between different Ableton lines in the arrangement. So we wanted to not do this and be focussed on what we are playing, and also seeing the crowd so we don't have a screen between us and the crowd.
Paul Frick: It's funny: I think there's also a big psychological aspect in it. Because some people have so much respect when they think, "oh these musicians have studied," which is also sometimes a bit ridiculous because a lot of the best musicians have never studied. But the people and the society, it's a big view like "oh this is a real musician" opposed to somebody doing stuff on his laptop. And that's actually a view I don't share at all, because I also admire a lot of laptop producers.
[Playing to a seated audience is] always a really weird tension, that's something that can sometimes be great. Like on Friday in London it was good when the people start to move, and we also had moments where people just stood up and danced in the seated audience.
Bass Clef / Ekoclef
Ralph Cumbers: The first Bass Clef performances were after I moved back to London in 2004. I'd been playing with a band in Bristol which was basically the same thing, under the name RLF, but with a big brass section and a guy doing turntablism and stuff like that. When I moved back to London I had to strip it back to just being me, and that's when I changed the name to Bass Clef. It was quite terrifying being there on your own when you're used to having four other people to hide behind, so I kind of got this mentality of having to do something all the time. I didn't have a computer so it was just to do something visual all the time which is where the trombone, percussion and drum machine came in.
I think the idea that a live set can consist of you playing a laptop seems...it just puts the audience in a certain frame of mind straight away, whereas as soon as you play a live instrument—even if you do it badly like me—it creates a different kind of energy. For me live performance is a very special kind of thing and if you can create the right kind of feeling then there's...a sense of being very in the moment. If you give the audience a lot of energy musically, and if they give it back to you, you get this nice kind of feedback loop going and it's a very powerful thing. I just don't know if I could create that with a laptop. Obviously some people can, but I think for me, I don't know how to go about doing that.
[With the Ekoclef shows it's] really just very much a case of winging it. I think we're still learning how to do that but every time we do that we do it a bit better. I mean, we never rehearsed or really spent that much time talking about it—it's a very instinctive process. Nick's normal live set-up when he's doing Ekoplekz shows is totally improvised so he's happy doing that.
Because of the nature of [my live shows] I get to do all kinds of different things, so I've played after rock bands or I've played in festivals in the daytime when there is just a load of five year-old kids running around, freaking out, which is brilliant. I've done shows with jazz musicians in the Southbank [Centre] that were really good, odd arty festivals that have more academic stuff and, yeah, sweaty basements at four in the morning with a massive soundsystem.
Sascha Ring: [The live show] just kind of happened as a slow development and as a transition because my musical tastes changed during the years. It was a little, how would you say… it was an egotistical change because I got bored during performances. If it was just me on stage then I kind of felt…I can't do any more, I only have two hands. Some people have really good single live shows but I always felt like I was playing loops, I was mixing stuff. I was doing it for so long that I was just searching for something else, and for me that was just the idea to invite people [to form a band].
It was actually quite painful because I've never been in a band; I've always been an electronic musician. I was some kind of a nerd in the beginning, I had to learn how the whole band thing works and how you transform songs that were made on a computer into a stage live version, which isn't that easy because if you make computer music you just end up having 70/80 tracks. You have to strip it down to the core of the idea because you can't really play so many different sounds at the same time with five or six people on stage.
Usually we are six people—that's me singing, playing guitar and a vocal effects box and basically I'm playing my guitar through a computer so it never really sounds like a guitar. And then we have two keyboard players. One is Nackt, who is my co-producer. He plays piano which also goes through a computer and is heavily effected, and he also plays guitar from time to time. And then we have Ben who is the other keyboard player and he does all the synthesiser stuff, he plays bass with one hand and he plays all the pads with the other hand. And then we have Jörg our drummer, he plays quite a usual, common acoustic set up, small drum kit and he also some pads. Jörg is the only one who plays a few pre-programmed loops because everyone else in our band is not supposed to do this. Everybody else is allowed to loop himself but we are not allowed to bring loops. And then we have two string players as well—a cello and a violin and those guys came in a little later. We started as four people and then we found those two string players, and I'm really happy because they are non-traditional string players. They have more stomp boxes than any of us.