|Alan Abrahams: Southern electronics
The man behind Bodycode, Portable and Süd Electronic is far from your typical techno artist. Mohson Iqbal meets Alan Abrahams.
Sonar, 2007. Abrahams is onstage in his Bodycode guise in front of 10,000 people, but he’s not playing it safe. In fact, he’s making the most ungodly racket, coaxing the kind of sheets of noise from his laptop that would make Lemmy from Motorhead stick his fingers in his ears.
Back in London, his label Süd Electronic is not really playing by the rules either. A longtime quiet achiever on the city’s crowded party circuit, Süd were quick off the mark bringing now popular DJs such as Cassy, Lawrence and Efdemin to the capital, often to unusual spaces off the beaten track. These days they’re pushing the right deep house buttons, too, bringing rising names such as Jus Ed and Move D to the city. One step ahead of the game.
Then there is Abrahams’ Portable alias, which has moved unpredictably from IDM to techno to house over the years on respected labels such as ~scape, Background and soon Perlon. All this activity from a South African—one of the few African faces in techno music in fact—who resides in Lisbon, Portugal of all places.
In fact, Abrahams used to live in London, where he spent ten years of his life (“I've paid my dues,” he says), but these days he pops back only when needed for gigs and such. This weekend the occasion is a live Portable set alongside Shackleton and Martyn at Fabric, before which I caught up with him for Vietnamese food, a few beers and the lowdown on Bodycode, Portable and Süd.
Did you have access to 12-inches and record shops as a teenager in South Africa?
We used to have vinyl and stuff of course, but I didn't have a turntable. It was just too expensive. There used to be a shop called Rent A Disc where DJs would get records. I wasn’t a DJ myself, but the DJs would rent twelve inches out for one day. So my friends who were DJs, I would go to their houses and get music from them. I’d be recording their mix tapes and stuff like that. I'd record music onto cassette for them.
Were there many dance parties happening?
When I was seventeen I used to go to underground parties, which were illegal in South Africa. A lot of people were playing Chicago house like Larry Heard and Master C&J and all that. Of course I was still in high school. Later on it got worse, after the sanctions and the state emergency was imposed upon the country. The government tried to control everything more and more…
So would you say that your music is political?
It’s always had some kind of political angle but a lot of my music is not openly political. It's always personal politics, you know? It's about your personal feelings. I try and make my music to be as honest as possible.
Do you try to get that across in your vocals? Not in an obvious way, but try and get across feelings and stuff.
Yeah, yeah. Definitely. This Portable album at the moment, Powers of Ten, there is 'Albatross' and that's about finding your way. It's like a situation we all are kind of in. But I don't want to be preaching. Like the song 'Migrate', I mean that was really sort of personal. It's like a ballad really. It's a really personal song.
But yeah, that's what I always want to try and convey with the music, that it's not really a man and machine situation with my music. It's more trying to get the humanity from the machine.
I noticed that with you often have concepts to your music. For example, the notes for The Conservation of Electric Charge had ideas about music being a tool to unlock the psyche, or 'A Document of An African Past' on Yore, which speaks for itself really…
Faceless techno? Abrahams plays live both as Portable and Bodycode. ““It takes special concentration. In that one hour, a lot of concentration goes into it.”
Yeah, the Yore release relates to the history of South Africa, this history of struggle. I told you that things were hard, but nothing that terribly bad happened to me. But of course now I live here in Europe and I can see how unfair things were. At the time, though, it was just the natural thing. It all comes from that time.
Now you’re living in Lisbon, which seems like an unusual place to end up. How did that come about?
I went to play there two and a half years ago. I was invited by a friend to play at the Luxx. So I went there and I played three or four gigs, and I stayed there three weeks because it was in the summer.
So you feel comfortable living there?
You know, I did another interview a few weeks ago and I was asked about this Lisbon connection. And I hadn’t really thought about it before, but there is a connection to South Africa there. Bartholomew Dias, who was a big Portuguese explorer, he explored Cape Town for the Europeans. There's a lot of Portuguese culture in South Africa. Like architecture. But also Portugal is really close to Europe but you don't feel like you're in Europe. You feel like you're a little bit in South America a little bit in Africa, that kind of thing.
The mixed cultures, the easy life?
Not an easy life, but easy weather, you know? And I'm never bored in Lisbon.
Does the country inspire you?
Yeah, because there is a lot of nature and nature is very important to my music. I wasn't really finding that in London, especially because I’d been living here for so long. Well, you can find it, but I grew up in Cape Town, which is a coastal city surrounded by water and Lisbon is very similar to Cape Town in that respect.
Süd Electronic is a night and label you run with Lerato in London. How did the night start?
Well, we were doing a label together and we thought it would be a good platform for us. The night started out of necessity because we found there were a lot of things to do in London, but they were very low quality, relative to what we thought the city wasn't being exposed to you.
This is our sixth year now and we've had Lawrence, Cassy, Jan Jelinek and so on. But the reason why we had to do this was because so needed some kind of platform for this kind of music, you know?
You don’t do parties in dedicated club spaces so often…
The more we did it, the more we realised that we didn't really want to be doing it in established clubs. It's much more hard work though. Now it’s Lerato doing the hard work on her own now because I'm not living here anymore.
What do you think about the London music scene at the moment? Do you feel that it offers enough for different tastes?
You know, I'm thinking of what to do tonight or tomorrow, and there is nothing. There are only the same things that have been here for the past year. I was hoping there'd be some new places opening now, but there aren’t. It's the same venues, the same situations.
Having said that, there must be something, but you have to find it. A lot of the time I found when I was living here, there are just so many things that when you actually do find it, it happened yesterday.
Süd Electronic the label has released eleven records from artists including yourself, AM/PM, Lump, etc. Could you explain how you discover artists? Are they friends or do you get music in the post and decide to release it?
Well, it’s very natural and very spontaneous. Like with Akiko Kiyama for example, I was touring and I met her. She was one of the earlier releases. The same thing happened with Kai and 'Water Protection'. Also with Bruno Pronsato, I played with him in Mexico City. So it's all kind of been like that really. It just happens.
As far as release policy goes, it also depends on what we think is good music for the time. For example, before we did some minimal things but we didn't really feel that it was really the right kind of sound for the time. Times change, you know? So we just want to be moving with the times.
How did your Bodycode project for Spectral Sound come about?
I was playing in Detroit as Portable at a place called Oslo and the guys from Ghostly—Sam and Jeff and Jacob—came to the gigs. At that time I was making more dance music versions of my Portable releases, and they wanted a project like that, a dance project. So then I sent them the Bodycode 12-inch. Well, I think it was four or five tracks and they really liked all five, and they asked me to make some more tracks to make it an album.
"It's not really a man and machine situation with my music. It's more trying to get the humanity from the machine."
So that's where the Conservation of Electrical Charge album came from...
Yes. The distinction between Portable and Bodycode is that the Bodycode is just a dance project and Portable is more experimental, or a mixture between the two. The Portable stuff of course has some dance elements also in there but it also uses more live instruments, vocals, and for example the new record has Portuguese guitars in it. It's more a mix of those kinds of elements with electronics.
If Bodycode remixed Portable, what would it sound like?
Actually 'Don't Give Up' was a Bodycode remix of a Portable track. The Bodycode was the first Süd release and the Bodycode remix was a remix angled at the dancefloor.
Your 12-inch ‘A Document Of An American Past’ was much more house oriented…
Yes. I wanted to create a house 12-inch that really went back to early house, nineties house. It was actually going to be the next Bodycode 12". The last Bodycode 12" was sort of more techno influenced but Bodycode is always about dance music. It doesn't have to be any particular kind of dance music so I just wanted to make a house 12" because I really like that kind of stuff, so that's where Lerato's vocal came in as well to make it more...
Powers of Ten was your recent Portable album—are you pleased with the reaction it got?
Yeah, pretty much. It was well received I think because it is from that vein of music, but still with a lot of influences in there, like indie influences and...
What would your main influences from indie be?
The Cocteau Twins from around the late '80s. You know like the first 4AD stuff, Joy Division. Also of course there is the African heritage. I wanted to include all of that and also include the fact that I'm now living in Portugal. That's why I included two Portuguese artists on the album.
What kind of live setup do you use?
I use Ableton Live. I don't think there is any other software out there that's so as malleable. Now I've even got Ableton 7, which has got an audio routing plug-in, and I've got a theremin, so what it's actually doing is feeding the audio from the theremin back into Ableton. Then the whole thing is controlled by movement.
So do you feel like a bit of conductor without the bow tie?
Well, yeah, a little bit. (laughs) But I am actually wearing a bow tie tomorrow! (laughs)
You just need a baton...
That's not a bad idea.
What are your plans for 2008?
In April we have the next Süd party.
Who have you got booked?
Bodycode (laughs). Yeah, it’s actually a Yore showcase with Andy Vaz and Rick Wade. Then of course we have the next Portable on Perlon and another Bodycode release on Spectral. And of course there is Lerato's label Uzuri. I’m doing a new project called Out of Time just for Uzuri.
What kind of sound?
House. Deep house.
This is a bit of a masochistic question. How does the London weather compare to Lisbon?
Well, today it’s grey and dark so I cannot wait to leave. (laughs) No, it's not as bad as I thought it would be. I mean I lived here for ten years. I lived here for a long time, like long enough. I've paid my dues.
And your council tax?
Yeah. (laughs) We'll see. It's nice to visit.
Just finally, you're making a lot of music under different guises in different styles. Are you're happy with your current rate of output?
Yeah. But sometimes I feel I should do more. But yeah, there is enough coming out over the next six months. I have two releases coming out before June so it's okay. I'll just flood the market! (laughs)
Sadly for you, that might mean you're coming back to London sooner rather than later.
I'm actually coming back to London in April and maybe I'll come after the Perlon release, you know. Who knows? Maybe I'll come back again in the summer.
Well, then you might as well get a small flat here.
Yeah, sure. Why not? (laughs)
Published / Thursday, 21 February 2008