Voices From The Lake helped Dozzy and Neel stake their claim as an utterly unique force in techno, but their live shows have pushed that reputation even further. It certainly helps hearing them play loud, but the freedom they're afforded in an improvised live performance lets them stretch their sound to its extremes. A barely audible whisper can build to an earth-splitting rumble, and the progression is in perfect emotional time with the crowd. That part is critical: their live setup involves a wealth of hardware boxes, synthesizer modules and wired connections, but the sync protocol holding everything together feels like it could be psychic.
2015 was another big year for Voices From The Lake as a live act. They closed The Labyrinth, the spiritual home of their sound, with a set that stretched for five hours and built to an unfathomable frenzy. In the final stretch of Breakfast Club at this year's ADE, Neel joined Dozzy for an impromptu Voices set after the latter's solo performance was interrupted by a power failure—with Peter Van Hoesen as the group's CDJ-wielding third member. My personal favorite, though, was Dozzy and Neel's performance at the Editions Mego showcase at Sónar By Day. Over the course of an hour, they lifted a sun-wearied crowd into a state of total mania, improbably remaking staid, sit-down SonarComplex into a rave scene. The afternoon after that performance, Dozzy and Neel took the stage at Sónar +D to demo their gear and explain the method to their madness.
What have you guys got on stage today?
Donato Dozzy: It's quite a complex but necessary setup for us. One component which is very important and contributes for the randomness of what we do is the modular system, which provides different sounds every time that we plug it in. And even if we turn off the electricity and then turn it on, it's going to be different. So we have the—let's say, the security that every time we can do something different. And it's all synced through this computer, which is providing the sync to all the machines. We implement this setup using some hardware effects, which are usually an Eventide and a PCM Lexicon, and we add a little more synthesizer in this case, which provides three oscillators. Then we have a sampler and usually two drum machines. Today, for a question of space, we just used one. But usually there is always a Roland 909, giving us the power. Yeah, every gig is really different from the previous one. This keeps things quite exciting.
Peppe, when we were backstage before coming out here, you spent at least half an hour or 45 minutes just putting a patch together on the modular. Is this how you get set up before every show?
Neel: It changes every time. The box is always the same, but for each live set I provide different models if I want to try something else. I want to connect with what Donato said before: we don't have a special idea before starting, we want to see the place before where we have to play. So when I plug something in before, I do a normal patch—a starter—so I have something where I can start. That is the basic thing I do. Even if it looks complex because it uses a lot of patch cables, it is the beginning where I start, so I can do some atmospheric sounds, percussion sounds, grooves. And while we play, I start to patch or unpatch some things. It's very interesting to work with this stuff, because, as Donato said, you cannot go back to what you were doing two minutes before, so you have to record it, or you lose it.
I thought that was interesting how you put it, Donato—that this unpredictability is a form of security, that you know it's going to be different every time. For a lot of people that would be terrifying.
Donato Dozzy: It's what keeps the thing really stimulating, because you know that it's going to be a unique experience. And for us, it's a good reason to keep on doing this and be amazed or disappointed—most of all amazed—by what comes out of the next gig. It's very nice to share this experience with a crowd. This is why I think sometimes things get crazy in a very nice way, and the feeling is truly shared between each of us.
So the live show is improvised?
Donato Dozzy: Completely. Sometimes when we want to just drive things longer, we build a sort of hybrid between just creating our own material and also other people's material, and just, you know, make things more large. This way we can last hours. It's happened more than one time that we just keep on playing for three, four hours, you know? And, as we get more confidence with the [environment] we are playing in and with the people, it gets really exciting.
You guys have been making music together for quite a while. Was live performance always a part of that?
Neel: No. We were friends for a long time, so we were working in the studio, having fun, doing tracks, and when we got the first commission to do our live set, we started to work more in a studio setup and then bring what we were doing in the studio. So we worked on this idea for probably one year, and then it's like, you arrive to the show, and you don't have a kind of inspiration for this thing. Because you arrive to a venue or whatever you have to play and you know exactly what you have to do. It can change, of course, but the idea is there. After a while you don't feel inspired, because you're doing the same thing. So we arrived to the point that we have to do something new.
We started at this party, which was running in Rome in a club, and we were supposed to DJ. And we arrived there with machines, so Donato didn't know what I was bringing, and I didn't know what he was bringing. We just plugged in and played three hours, and it worked out. After that, we went to play in Japan, in Tokyo. We played six hours live like that, so it worked out very well. That was the direction, and from that time we kept on going like this.
How close is your live setup—and the approach you take to playing live—to what you have in the studio?
Donato Dozzy: In the studio, we sit down, we take it more easy. We alternate moments of jamming with recording and focusing on one sound to make it proper, to find the right way to record it. Things get a bit slower because we don't have the rush of creating immediately a sort of emotional impact on the crowd. So this makes a difference, of course. But apart from that, sometimes we just plug in and play and record what happens, and it's fun, you know?
Neel: When you're doing a studio recording, of course, you want to get a very good product at the end. You are doing something with a modular or whatever, and you do more sounds, and you see that they work out together. After that you start recording a basic groove to have the feeling. Then you start to do a take with a percussion part on top of it—you have the filling. And you record that, and then you continue to add more sounds. You can do also one take with all the sounds. Sometimes you have to do that because you probably don't have so many facilities to record very well, but you always have the risk that it doesn't sound good. So if you have the chance, you have the studio, you have a lot of [production tools], and you take your time and do it properly. That's the key.
Let's talk about the modular.
Neel: Yeah, don't buy a modular.
You said this to me earlier. You said, "Don't go down that road. It's never-ending."
Neel: If you have a kid, buy him a modular—he won't buy drugs, he'll just buy modules [laughs].
What's in the system you use for your live shows? You have a big one that stays in your studio, and this is just for live performance, right?
Neel: Yeah. In the studio, I'm building a wall right now. There are some oscillators… the one that you heard before—more like a percussion sound and more hypnotic sound—it's these oscillators, which I really like, and use in a few live shows right now. It's a synthesizer that is able to reproduce membrane sounds. I have some modules that I can trigger with the sequencer, and [others that are] more like function controls, something to bring morphing into the sounds. [There are also modules for] filtering out the sounds, so like opening or closing the frequency spectrum of the sounds. These kind of things I really like—it's called a low-pass gate. Basically what it does is send the sound, then you can trigger it so you can do percussion sounds that are very low. So you can get kind of a bubble feeling, like a Buchla sound. Four hours wouldn't be enough to explain, it's just… it's fun. What can I say? It's very fun.
Donato Dozzy: I always keep an eye on the modular—not because I need to control what it does, but because I need to follow the way he increases or decreases the energy of that system. Sometimes he leads, sometimes he brings things lower and plays different types of sounds. I love modular myself, and I like the way he uses it. I won't bring my things on stage—one is enough, and what he does is just right.
Neel: One thing that I have to add is, of course, when you do live sets, you have to pay attention. Now, we were playing ten minutes, but if you have to keep on going, then you have to change the sounds. Donato doesn't only have to follow me, but there are times that he has to get complete control and then leave some sound in the background around what he does, to give me the time to reorganize all the mess here.
What role does the laptop play in your live set?
Neel: Right now, the computer was playing a BPM clock. I have a special plug-in for this module, which is connected by optical audio from the soundcard. So basically I do some LFO, then go out from this module and it's translated in the CV controller into control voltage. So basically I use the computer to clock the whole system. So the soundcard is used mostly for if I have a sample, though now Donato has the Electron Octatrack. But before I was sampling stuff with Ableton Live. I can play some samples from the computer, but mostly it's used to send the MIDI to him and to my machine. Basically the computer is 75% clocking and LFO to control the system. That's it.
Tell me about the board you're using for your live set and how you have everything organized on there. Are you doing much processing with it?
Neel: Well, yes. Most of the time for drum machines, we use 909s and 808s, which have separate outputs—separate kicks, the low and mid tom and so on, and we have also all the sends. We are working in an analog way, so there are all the effects or whatever we have, and then all the machines and the other things. So 32 channels are OK. Sometimes we reduce the stuff, of course, but its more fun to put your hand on an analogue desk and play live instead. The main problem is—for example, today I was fighting with the masking tape on the mixer, where we write down all the instruments. Otherwise we just make a mess.
Especially if you're playing a five-hour set.
Neel: What happens is you maybe just start using the wrong channel. When you play for five hours, you get used to it.
Donato Dozzy: It's a classic of playing, but it's fun.
Neel: I mean, after three hours, you know that's the kick. But sometimes there is no light, and we lost the tape and said, "OK, let's just hear the sounds."
Donato Dozzy: You go slowly with the fader and hear, "That's a kick! OK, go with the kick."
Neel: Yeah, the show has started. We can't keep talking forever.
I think this hints at the fact that this setup is quite complex. When you're playing these very long live sets, though, you have to be sensitive to the crowd. How are you able to keep things natural and loose when there's so much technical stuff to take care of?
Neel: It took years to have such confidence, where you put your hands and you know what is going to happen and know the machines. But it's really important, because when you play live, sometimes you risk being contained in a structure you prepare from home. You have a rigid structure of songs that you need to respect. [With our way of playing], you're doing complete anarchy, and you really can adjust yourself to the situation. It's a sort of feeling that you can have when you DJ, and you have no plan, you know? In this way we just put our experiences that we have been putting together in a few years, to just make the live experience as much fun as could be—like DJing. So at this point, its becoming really interesting, because you put the experience of a live PA together with the experience of a DJ set, because we both have a background in that. And this bringing of the two things together makes a different type of result.
What's the setup like when you're doing one of these hybrid DJ/live sets?
Donato Dozzy: Usually we request this mixer, because we know it very well, and for a live set, this Midas Venice is really a good one. But of course, from set to set, we also like to surprise each other. I don't ask him how many modules and what he's going to bring; I want to be surprised. Maybe he recorded in the studio some sounds that I don't know about, and don't want to know about—because I want to hear them on stage, you know?
Neel: It's kind of a joke we do.
Donato Dozzy: It's better to surprise each other on stage. We prank each other sometimes, of course.
Neel: Every live show, for sure we have a 909 and an 808. I don't know how many babies he's bringing, he doesn't know what I put on the box—and that's it. But we are confident right now to play whatever works together, so we are able to fix each other, let's say. So that's cool.
Are there ever times when this chaos becomes a bad thing?
Donato Dozzy: That's part of the game. Sometimes you mess up, but also, you count on your experience to fix the situation. Sometimes it happens also that not everything works, so even a drop, a very slight drop of electricity can create some problems. Like, you have a delay out of sync, and then what do you do? There are a lot of people watching you, and you need to figure out what needs to be done. So you just sometimes learn some tricks that can be useful in a moment of emergency—OK, we need to stop the clock and create an effect, something that people don't even notice. And sometimes mistakes can sound cool.
Neel: Sometimes it can happen that you do your soundcheck, like we did before. Then when you arrive onstage, it happens sometimes that half of the setup—you don't know why—doesn't work. So what do you do? You focus, let's say, on one machine or whatever, and then you get the best of that machine. Until that moment you were using that machine in a standard way. The day after, you know more of that machine, so there is always a way to learn. Of course it's a very stressful thing the day before, but it happens. So its really part of the game, especially when you have a complex setup. It's very delicate, with so many kinds of languages and communication—MIDI, control voltage, optical audio—so you have to be careful what you are doing, where and how you place the machines, and you have to take care of them very well.
Do you find that playing live influences the work you do in the studio?
So the music you're making out on the road could eventually end up in your studio compositions?
Neel: If you consider that the last EP we did was a live recording… I guess also 531 kHz was live, too. If it sounds good, we work on it, because it's not possible that you can reproduce what you did live. It's not just regarding synthesizers or the sound itself, it's regarding the vibe you were feeling in that moment, which in the studio you don't have. And then of course we work a lot in the studio with a mastering engineer, and he has very credible ears, too, so we want things to be perfect to our ears of course.
Looking beyond the technical stuff, can you tell us a little bit about your vibe with each other? What's it like when Voices From The Lake has a session?
Neel: I was always inspired by Donato. We've known each other a long time. I was 17 years old when I met him. I'm 33 right now. So he was my—is still my inspiration or something, you know? And he lets me do my thing always, so he's never said to me, "You have to do it like that." Basically, there are two things: I'm more sounds, and he's a visionary guy. So I can work on something and I do it, and he comes with just one thing, and I say, "Fuck! How did you do it?" It's just like this: when we work, we have fun working together, and we don't talk so much. We just do it. You want to add something?
Donato Dozzy: Yes—that if we talk, we talk bullshit, basically. It's like, we keep things light. Of course we can talk about deep stuff. But in order to keep the spirit light, we like playing and pranking each other. We're just very easy with each other. We never really stress each other out. When we are on a large stage and there's thousands of people, we are like, "OK, no worries. It's fine. Not a big deal."