I'm here to meet Milo Smee, whose studio is one of a small complex of rooms out the back of the bar. Inasmuch as one exists, this room is the hub of Power Vacuum, the label Smee has run since 2012. Whether it's the gun-cocking gabber of EDMX's "Cerberus," aggro-techno from both the old school (Mark Broom) and the new (JoeFarr), or the whiplash electro and acid Smee issues as Bintus, Power Vacuum has released some of the most entertaining records of recent years. The label arrived amidst a wave of interest in harder techno, but in contrast to the stern demeanour of its peers, Power Vacuum has a mischievous glint in its eye.
At first it's difficult to square this with Smee, an earnest and amiable man who's just entering his 40s. His mischievous side will start to show later, after we've drunk a bottle of wine and cracked into the 7% Belgian beer. For now, he enthuses about Sameheads—something of a focal point for Smee's social circle—and the three British brothers behind it. He recalls encountering two of the brothers at a barbecue, back when he first started visiting Berlin in 2006 (it remains his second home, after London). They were being drunk, loud and very English. "I thought, 'Oh god—these are the people I want to get away from,' you know? Finally one of them turned to me and said, 'Have a gin and tonic! Go ooon!' And I felt such a blanket of comfort of this Englishness—this, like, 'Come on, let's get pissed!'—that I immediately started liking them," he laughs.
The brothers became Smee's point of access to the city. "I used to basically follow these guys around because they were really plugged in," he says. "They're magnets for a lot of people—they've helped so many people coming into the city to get a start. That's quite special, you know?" In Smee's case this involved DJ slots at their regular parties, flamboyant events with diverse lineups, then taking place at a now-defunct Neukölln venue called Raum. "It's easy for me to have really good memories of those parties for so many reasons," Smee says. "I knew I could just go off and indulge myself, generally go for it and have a great time. A lot of happy people."
Having kept a studio in the building for three years, Smee's Berlin life remains entwined with that of Sameheads. But his story stretches back much further than that—further, even, than Chrome Hoof, the bombastic prog-disco troupe he and his brother Leo directed throughout the 2000s. So far, in fact, that by the time our conversation reaches the present day we're in our third venue of the evening, having swapped Sameheads for another local bar, via a stop at a small Italian restaurant. (When the waitress spotted my dictaphone, Smee would spend a few minutes trying to convince her that he was the journalist and I was the son of heavy metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen.) Smee has been making music for over two decades. His is a fascinating tale of missed opportunities and chance collisions with the zeitgeist.
First there was the four-album deal he signed with a German label as part of Kactus, the pre-cursor to Chrome Hoof, in the mid-'90s. Having dropped out of university after 18 months ("The worst time to leave—halfway through," he chuckles), Smee's older brother wangled him an interview for a tape op job at Sony's London studios. Smee reckons his chances were good but, contract in hand, he decided to blow off the interview. "In my naivety I thought, 'What do I need a job for? No, you're alright Sony, nah.' Kactus did one album that sold about 120 copies and [the label boss] never asked for another. And that was that. And then the wilderness years began," he says, half-joking. "My first three-year stint on the dole."
Smee wasn't entirely out on his own. Around the same time he met British techno artist Mark Broom, who was dating Smee's then-flatmate, and began pressing demo cassettes into his hand. "Mark was my one way into getting a piece of vinyl released, which was all I wanted. After about a year of sending him tapes I did a track which he said, 'This is good, we'll put this out.'" The track, "Turnip In The Mist," became Smee's first solo 12-inch, for Broom's Unxplored Beats label. From there his Kruton alias became an irregular fixture on Unxplored Beats and the higher-profile Pure Plastic.
Smee's friendship with Broom continued into the 2000s. The pair would go on to run an acid house party called Night Biscuit, and release an album as Five Mic Cluster in the dying days of Trevor Jackson's Output label. But as that first Kruton release—a downtempo oddity indebted to IDM and first-wave electro—demonstrated, Smee's aesthetic was too idiosyncratic for Broom's core audience. "In the huge amount of output they had, with proper dance music people, occasionally they'd have this oddball Kruton track, this weird hip-hop, electro, freak-beat thing," he says. "'I don't think with a lot of Mark Broom's buying public and contemporaries I was really accepted."
There were other misfires, too, such as the promise of a release on Mo'Wax, which evaporated, much to Smee's dismay. It wasn't until the mid 2000s that his solo career would get another boost, when Ben "Gatto Fritto" Williams, then a co-worker at Soho's Reckless Records, played him Gino Soccio's arp-led 1979 production "There's A Woman." "I wasn't a disco boy at all, but I loved it," Smee recalls. "So I got really inspired and tried to make a long disco track with this biscuit tin bassdrum sound and a vocal. So I did this track called 'False Energy,' under a new name, Binary Chaffinch." The track took Smee six months to finish. During that time a band he was drumming for introduced him to South London DJ Andy Blake. Blake asked to hear this rumoured disco epic. The labyrinthine "False Energy" became one of the first, and biggest, releases on Blake's new label, Dissident.
"'False Energy' really blew up in a certain scene," Smee says. "Prins Thomas was mad about it, we did a couple of represses, people were writing about it. The disco thing was pretty big at that point in London, and Dissident was on the forefront of that, just for a few months. I think Andy and myself thought more things might have come of that." Smee put out several more records on Dissident in the ensuing years. But when Blake wrapped up the label at the end of 2009, his prospects of wider success seemed much the same as ever.
Smee was going through other big changes at the time. He left Chrome Hoof after the release of 2010's Crush Depth, and began spending more time in Berlin. But his next re-invention looked back to his roots. Raised in Essex, Smee was a couple of years too young for the Second Summer Of Love, and "not popular enough" to score a lift from his tiny village to the huge outdoor raves then girdling London each weekend. Instead, his formative raving experiences were in Colchester club Tutu's, where from '91 to '93 he observed hardcore techno's vertiginous ascent into what would become jungle and happy hardcore.
"My mind was definitely blown by hardcore rave," Smee says. "It's probably the reason I'm doing what I'm doing now. A word that used to be said all the time was, 'Oh, that's mental.' No one had ever heard these sounds before, it was completely new. Then you go there next week and somehow they've upped the ante—someone's found a more mental sound."
Combined with a latecomer's love for acid house and a childhood obsession with electro, it was these raving experiences that inspired Bintus. That, and an opportunity Smee had been dreaming of for years. In 2011, a friend from the Sameheads crowd, Joe Seaton, mentioned that another friend, TJ Hertz, had a 303 to lend for a few days. Smee also realised he could borrow another friend's 808. '
"It was like, 'Fucking hell, the planets are going to be in alignment for a very short period," he says, now nursing a lethal Trappist beer in the second bar of the evening. The ensuing three-day session yielded huge amounts of material. "I got out of it much more than I'd hoped," Smee says, estimating he has "another ten undeveloped jams" from that period, on top of the five or so that have already been released.
Smee's initial plan was to start a digital label, selecting two tracks for its debut: the steroidal acid stomper "Corrosion Control" and the diamond-edged Dopplereffekt-style grooves of "Advanced Fuel." When he played the tracks to Seaton, who is now better known as Call Super, and Hertz, who was gaining plaudits for his work as Objekt, they had other ideas.
"As soon as they heard the first two tracks, they said, 'You should definitely put this on vinyl.' I felt really out of the game. I didn't really know what music was popular. Objekt, people really liked what he did. Joe is a very good communicator, he knows loads of people. And both of those things I wasn't at the time. I'd kind of already tried that a few times on my own, through the years, and it never quite worked. So to have these two younger guys on my side was really nice."
Hertz put Smee in touch with his distributors, Rubadub, while Smee's old friend Fergus "Fergadelic" Purcell created a logo. Power Vacuum was born and, taking the rough but playful aesthetic of Bintus as its template, set about establishing itself. Early releases from Broom, Rephlex veteran EDMX, and Invincible Scum, Smee's duo with Andy Blake, suggested a focus on the old guard. But Smee was surprised by the response from younger listeners and producers, too.
"I'd thought that the stuff I loved was quite out of touch with what's going on now," Smee says. "But that got blown out of the water when I played in Glasgow at La Cheetah for these young guys called Offbeat. We were having a mix-up round their house before the gig. I had a load of this old techno and rave stuff that hasn't left my bag for 20 years. And they were all like, 'Yeah, I like this one, I've got two copies!' It gave me a massive lift, to know that young people are aware of the sounds that I'm into. And not only are they aware of it, they really dig it."
Smee's focus has since broadened, with younger producers J. Tijn, JoeFarr and Objekt appearing on the label's first compilation, Vectors. In explaining what he looks for in a new signing, Smee draws on those earliest experiences at Tutu's, and that word, "mental."
"It's the audio equivalent of Op-art, or Cubism, where your brain can't quite process what's going on," Smee says. He recounts having a "breakdown of the senses" at a Bridget Riley exhibition, laughing in disbelief at a flat picture that tricked his brain into thinking it was 3D. "When you have music that messes with your perception, is ungraspable, and still it rocks the dance floor, then that's as close to my holy grail as I can think of at the moment."
In Smee's work as Bintus, this pursuit of the ungraspable has been developed to a fine art. This year's Lightnin', the label's tenth release, feels focussed and assured, from the remorseless throb of "Reflections On Brown" to the glutinous acid techno of "Warwick Castle Meltdown." "Looking In Your Fridge," in particular, reflects Smee's discombobulating credos: there's something incredibly vivid and tactile to the way its sounds squeal and squelch themselves into oblivion.
Still, Smee—no stranger to reinvention—is already thinking about a new direction. When asked about the future of the label, he enthuses about "the marriage of live musicianship and electronics," an approach that, from the doomy disco of Chrome Hoof to the loose grooves of his Dissident hits, has animated much of his work. Future Vectors compilations, he suggests, might feature a side of guitar music alongside more standard Power Vacuum material. "A lot of people I've spoken to have said, 'You should start another label for that.' It's a chancy thing," he concedes. "When it works well, it's amazing. When it works badly it's terrible. And I like high-risk stuff."
By this point we've bumped into one of the Sameheads brothers, out to see a friend's band perform. He and Smee go back to the bar for another drink and the tail end of the pub quiz. Smee is racking his brains for any final thoughts on the direction of the label. "I've been advised, 'If you were a bit more aware of what was going on, you could do yourself favours in terms of what position Power Vacuum is in,'" he says.
"Part of me thinks, 'You're absolutely right.' But a bigger part of me thinks I want to engage less. Because the guy in his own little world, pushing forward in one direction, to me is much more valuable than someone who's very well-versed in everything that's going on, and takes a bit from that and a bit from that to make something that maybe appeals to more people, you know what I mean? So in a way I want to close myself off. That's what's good about kind of hammering at it for a long time. The stuff you worry about and think is important—other people's opinions—just starts to drop away."
Bintus - Lightnin (POWVAC010 - forthcoming)
Bintus - Corrosion Control (POWVAC001)
Invincible Scum - Scumrush (POWVAC004)
JoeFarr & J. Tijn - Mustard Sucker (POWVAC008)
Mark Broom - Beat Mix (POWVAC005)
An-i - Convo (POWVAC008)
JoeFarr - Sentry (POWVAC009)
Objekt - Balloons (POWVAC008)
EDMX - I'm Rushing My Tits Off (POWVAC002)
Bintus - Paracelsus Beat (POWVAC007)
EDMX - Star Blast (POWVAC006)
JoeFarr - Rampart (POWVAC009)
EDMX - Frozen Stomp (POWVAC006)
Positive Merge - Note (POWVAC008)
EDMX - Cerberus (POWVAC002)
Bintus - Point Counter Point (POWVAC003)
Bintus - Advanced fuel (POWVAC001)
Cylob - Spyworld (POWVAC011 - forthcoming)
Cornwallis - At The Disco (POWVAC011 - forthcoming)