Though both accomplished DJs, they're still finding their way around a live setup and have played outside of Dublin just a handful of times. Even after ten years of trial and error, Lakker still haven't worked it all out yet. But that's exactly what makes them so interesting.
You must have been friends for a long time now. How did you meet?
Ian McDonnell: We met through mutual school friends; we had plans to get a music group together. Dara was making tunes already, electronic stuff in a little studio he had set up. We [all] had this four-piece band for a while, and when that fizzled out, the two of us were still on the same wavelength musically, so we decided to work together. That was about 11 years ago, the start of Lakker, and we have been doing it ever since.
Tell me more about the band. You were called Undermine, right?
Ian McDonnell: It started off being a mix between electronic music and heavy metal, with punk influences. Massively influenced by the Prodigy—we were huge Prodigy fans back then. As our tastes matured, we got really into the Warp sound, and became influenced by people like Aphex Twin, Autechre and Plaid. For about three years we were doing Undermine, but in that time we became more electronic. And that's when the band broke up.
And these days Aphex Twin is a fan of yours?
Ian McDonnell: Yeah, that was great. We were standing at a festival in 2011 called Forbidden Fruits, and Aphex was playing a DJ set as the headliner. A few tunes into the set he played this track—you know when you hear a DJ play something, you recognise it, and you're like, "What is that, what is that…" and then it dawned on me what it was: shit, it was one of ours. I was looking around for Dara, who was down the front—I was at the back, hoping he was hearing this as well. And then he played another [Lakker] tune; he played like three tunes in the set, and we were just blown away.
It didn't sink in for a while. It makes it very real when stuff like that happens. OK, it's more than us just making tunes in our home studio now. It was a nice pat on the back for the work we had down, and then we were hungry for more.
After that we had the Spider Silk release with Killekill. From there James Ruskin got in touch, and the Blueprint releases followed.
Considering you don't call yourselves a techno act, your discography appears to suggest otherwise.
Ian McDonnell: We've kind of landed in the techno scene, it seems. We've always been fans of techno. We've always played it, and DJ'd it.
Dara Smith: We actually started listening to Surgeon, Downwards, Blueprint—all those labels in the very beginning, and when all the Warp stuff took over we were really into that. Now there's so much amazing new techno around again.
UK techno has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, with people like Blawan coming to the fore with signature takes on the genre. Do you think you have your own sound?
Dara Smith: I think we're getting there, but you can't answer that question yourself.
Ian McDonnell: We've always had an idea of what we wanted our sound to be, and we're forever working towards that, but I'm not sure if we've achieved it yet.
Dara Smith: There's room for people who have a super-specific sound. I also think there's something interesting about people who have a little broader set of influences and styles.
Ian, can you tell me about your solo project, Eomac?
Ian McDonnell: That happened naturally. There was a period where Dara went to travel the world between 2007 and 2009. We weren't really doing much Lakker stuff, but I wanted to carry on making tunes.
Dara Smith: But you had done some solo Eomac stuff before then.
Ian McDonnell: I've always been tipping away. I've been making music since I was six. I played piano when I was a kid, so it was always something I liked doing. A duo is about collaboration, two ideas, so there's always some level of compromise. That's part of what makes it work: the combination of ideas. But I have always personally liked having something that is just me. It made sense to start it when we were sort of on hiatus.
Does your Eomac work feed into Lakker, or are they distinctly separate?
Dara Smith: I think they both inform each other in some ways.
Ian McDonnell: With the Lakker stuff, we now have a clear idea of what our sound should be. With the Eomac stuff I have just been writing whatever I feel like.
Dara, do you also have a solo music outlet?
Ian McDonnell: He used to.
Dara Smith: Years ago I used to write just banging techno, and that was that. But now I don't have much time because of work and family. I enjoy working on the visuals. But for me it is just a time thing. If I went completely at it, or if there were more hours in the day, I probably would. But I really enjoy the process of working as a duo.
Can you explain why the partnership suits you both?
Dara Smith: Because we have been mates for so long, we have thick skins in terms of insulting each other.
Ian McDonnell: If something's not working you just go, "OK." There's no arguing or getting upset anymore.
Dara Smith: And that's really important. We have really similar tastes, and know exactly what's going to work and what's not. So it is just a really easy process.
Ian McDonnell: And we both respect each other's opinions.
So it is quite an even partnership, it's not like either of you have specific roles?
Ian McDonnell: In really general terms—it doesn't always work this way—Dara does a lot of the sound design. He's really good at creating synth patches and does a lot of field recording, and creating banks and banks of sounds. And I'll make a lot of beats. It can often work that way, but not all the time.
Dara Smith: That's maybe how things start, but after a while it turns into a total mash up.
Ian McDonnell: If one of us has a really strong idea, we'll just run with it.
Ian McDonnell: That's still in a state of developing. We're working on ways we can actually perform that are satisfactory for us and a crowd. I think it's really hard to do a live set with electronic music, still. There are more tools than ever before, but it is still not very natural or intuitive [compared to] playing an instrument. We try to share 50/50, do a bit of everything, but that's hard to do in a live set in an improvised way.
Are you saying that performing electronic music doesn't quite match up to performing as a band?
Ian McDonnell: It's not that it doesn't match up for us as performers. As a punter going to a live gig, I am perfectly happy to watch a DJ at a laptop. If the atmosphere is good, it doesn't really matter to me. But for us it's about doing something that is interesting in a performance way, but that also doesn't compromise the quality of the music—because you spend hours in the studio making the music sound the way you want. And then when you are presenting it to people, you can just fuck it up if you try to do too much.
Dara Smith: We also came to DJing in a funny way because we started DJing together, so we'd be hopping back and forward, two decks, three decks, CD player, putting together these weird DJ sets that would be multi-layered.
Ian McDonnell: We'd like to get to the idea of a loosely improvised thing with lots of chunks, loops and elements of our tracks, just have a pallet of those and see where we can take them live. But we're not at that stage yet.
It's interesting that you've been a partnership for ten years, but you're still feeling things out. Were you playing many gigs before this Lakker emergence?
Dara Smith: We were playing mainly in Dublin, occasionally other places, but very little international gigs. Now we've started to play more, in bigger clubs and on bigger soundsystems, and with different crowds. Dublin is sort of a strange place. It's really small and all the nights tend to be loads of different types of music in one. It won't be a purist night of minimal techno, or whatever, so I suppose that has maybe informed our sound a bit.
Ian McDonnell: We don't like to just go in and play a set of any particular type of music. We like to do what we do, vary it up. It's been interesting for us playing places like Berlin, where people are expecting techno—and trying to work within that. Not just playing techno, and what people expect, but being true to ourselves, and do what we can in that kind of environment.
Have you found that to be working on the whole for you?
Dara Smith: People will respond to stuff if you approach it in the right way. Some of our tracks wouldn't be straight-up techno, they'd have more breaks, maybe an electro-y sound, but once you get the flow of the set right you can play quite a broad range of music.
Ian McDonnell: If you do something really honest, people will respond to it. The first time we played Suicide Circus was a bit like that. It took people a while to get into the set, but by the end we got really good feedback. We just stuck to our guns. We play what we play, doesn't matter what club we're in. Doing your thing is better than trying to guess what people are expecting.
Dara Smith: As you do more gigs you start to realise that things seem a bit higgledy-piggledy at the beginning, but it generally works out in the end.
You guys grew up in Dublin. Is it a place you see yourselves remaining indefinitely?
Both: Probably not.
Your latest EP is for Stroboscopic Artefacts' Monad series. Can you tell us about the concept behind it?
Ian McDonnell: There wasn't any sort of concrete concept, more of a sound aesthetic. We had a sound in our heads for the tracks, a lot of texture and grit, but no external concept. It's how we always work.
Dara Smith: It did seem to focus us, though, for some reason. We wrote a good chunk of tunes, and you can kind of tell they've all been written in the same session.
Ian McDonnell: It was good to have a project to work towards. We ended up writing more tracks that we just enjoyed, more tracks than we needed for the release.
I've read that this is normal practice for you guys—to write too much material.
Ian McDonnell: We are constantly writing, even if it is just a little bit every day, like loops.
I've noticed this on your SoundCloud: all these loops with their own little visual.
Dara Smith: We started doing this Tumblr thing. The visuals have come out of the music, in a way, and then we started putting up a little animated gif, with a playable SoundCloud link. It was just a little idea. That's one way I really like working. I like to set myself a little rule or a little idea, and then go, "How many things can I do with this?" Even if it is just something really small. Keep at it until you have a load of things, then cipher through it to see if there's anything you can take out of it.