Mark Smith checks in with one of techno's forgotten greats.
B12 released music with Warp on an album-by-album basis, but Rutter says they didn't enjoy the support afforded to the artists who had taken the bigger deal. "When it came to promotion and touring, we were left in the cold because they didn't have a vested interest in us. In hindsight, we were short-sighted. We could've easily made all that money back, we just had no idea that anyone out there cared. So all those other guys went on to huge things and we went back to our day jobs."
History tends to overlook those who don't fit easily into the dominant narrative. B12 is a case in point. Faced with opportunities to compromise their vision, to follow trends disconnected to their music, they remained resolutely true to themselves. Rather than searching for the shock of the new, Rutter and Golding honed a consistent yet distinct sound that's out of step with time. Behind the syncopated Roland drum machines and serene strings lies a palpable sense of honesty. Though they might not have properly gotten their due, B12 wrote some of the most arresting electronic music of the '90s.
Speaking to Rutter today (Golding has since left the group), he's surprised to receive positive feedback about his music and wondered why I'd bothered to get in touch. It felt like he was being self-effacing given that both Oli Warwick and Olly Chub had spoken to him in recent years, but it reflected Rutter's downcast perspective on B12's legacy, or lack thereof. I met the London native in a touristy cafe near Oxford Street and was immediately taken aback by his disarming mixture of kindness and English self-depreciation. Rutter was candid about the B12 story, but if you took his word for it you'd think B12 never had a single fan, which is far from the truth. When I mentioned that the likes of Appleblim, Peter Van Hoesen, DJ Bone and Steffi had expressed their admiration in the comments section under his recent EP on Delsin, he said, "I don't have much belief in what I do and when I read those messages it was quite hard to take in. We were always criticised for being behind the times so reading that stuff was a big deal for me."
Although their music ending up having little to do with IDM, B12 were grouped with, and thus compared to, its key artists. A fairly typical assessment is found in Simon Reynolds' chapter on IDM in Energy Flash, where he compares B12's first album to being "forcibly anaesthetised with Glade air-freshener," before going on to assert the importance of Autechre, The Black Dog and Aphex Twin. Whether they deserved it or not, B12 never quite had the cultural impact enjoyed by their peers, mainly because of an unwillingness to ride trends or change their sound. This is what respected creatives are expected to do—these are attributes routinely attributed to successful artists
—but what does that count for if the dominant histories aren't singing your praises?
Part of the problem is that historians and critics like to emphasise artists who allegedly played a groundbreaking role in pushing a style forward. This assumption that art forms evolve in linear chronologies with an avant-garde pushing it forward is a fallacy that's become ingrained in many ways of viewing culture, but especially in electronic music. Placing greater value on supposedly innovative artists assumes that those following their own muse but working within established forms are inherently less valuable.
It's a perspective that IDM brought to a fever pitch, but which has been latent in how Westerners ascribe value to creative works since the Renaissance. I asked Rutter whether he feels innovation and development are superficial criteria for judging the value of music. He brought up John Lee Hooker. "He did the same thing for decades because it's in his blood," he said. "It'd be pretty weird asking him to move with the times."
There will always be appetite for the cutting edge, but artists like B12 show us that there's something to be said for sticking to what you know, even if everyone around you is telling you you're out of touch. Their focus on limited stylistic parameters engendered a subtlety of feeling. Today, B12's discography retains a sense of vitality that puts many of their contemporaries to shame.
By the time Warp called, Rutter and Golding had already released seven self-financed EPs on their own label, B12 Records, that have since become prized by DJs and collectors alike. There was a considerable aura of mystique around the label. Many people assumed it was from Detroit. The duo barely broke even on each release, partly because they invested in distinctive orange labels, shrink-wrapping and coloured vinyl at a time when cheap white labels could make quick money. They invented a roster of artists, including Redcell, 2001, Musicology and Cmetric, to create the perception that there were more producers behind the label than just two guys.
Plus 8 and Transmat were formative influences, but B12's style of techno was melodic, pad-heavy and syncopated. "I remember one of the guys at the record store where Mike worked said, 'Why are you bothering with this rubbish? Who's going to want this?' People were into heavier Belgian sounds back then. From my perspective, barely anyone gave a stuff about labels like Transmat, let alone what we were doing." Now these same records have become coveted articles on the second hand market, even more so as closely-watched DJs like Nicolas Lutz and Andrew James Gustav include B12 tracks in their sets.
Rutter and Golding had a narrow and romantic idea of what constitutes techno—as they saw it, the needs of the dance floor were a corrupting influence on an otherwise pure form of music. As techno became increasingly distorted and aggressive, B12 remained emotional and nuanced. Their beats don't hit so much as glide, the light touch serving to highlight the movements of melody and texture.
To them, techno was serious art, a viewpoint that made them fit perfectly into the home-listening ethos of Warp's first Artificial Intelligence compilation and thus into IDM's Day Zero. Their presentation was unashamedly sci-fi, epitomising what we'd now consider a retro-futuristic aesthetic. Utopian messages were etched into their vinyl—"The future has only just started," or, "My time is yours." The phrase "Expressions of the Future" adorned the cover of their self-titled Musicology EP. Even if it seems idealistic today, B12's imagery was the product of an era still fantasised about its future.
Rutter told me that though they'd declined Warp's initial offer, one of the label's founders, the late Rob Mitchell, was still interested in releasing a B12 album. Electro-Soma was a compilation of early recordings under a range of aliases that effectively gave Rutter and Golding the alias by which they're known today. "When we received the first copies in the post and saw the artwork, we looked at each other said, 'Who's B12?' because we'd never gone by that name. Warp decided for us. I guess it shows how naive we were." Today, Electro-Soma sounds blissfully fleet-footed, combining emotional extremes into complex wholes. Euphoria and melancholy are locked in a delicate balance, shown to be two sides of the same coin.
Much to Rutter and Golding's surprise, Electro-Soma was fairly successful. Thousands of copies sold every week. Mitchell was immediately interested in signing another LP, which became 1996's TimeTourist. After realising that reaching a larger audience wasn't completely out of the question, B12 raised the possibility of renegotiating the original six-album deal that they'd been too careful to sign—but Rutter claims they were told it was too late and another one-album contract was drafted.
Time Tourist came at a moment when Aphex Twin and Autechre were slipping deeper into abstraction and B12's comparatively traditional style seemed increasingly passé. Still, TimeTourist might be B12's strongest work, and is certainly a high-point in Warp's discography. The cover looks like a scene out of Wipeout 2097—Designer's Republic was behind both—and the inner gatefold contains a message written from the year 2166.
For all its future-centrism, TimeTourist feels tied to something older. It's all shiny surfaces and crisp edges, but the guiding intelligence behind the scenes feels weathered and cautious in its moments of joy. Electro-Soma's questing sense of travel and discovery is still there, but TimeTourist seems to have journeyed too far into the void.
As the '90s were drawing to a close, Rutter describes the process of compiling what would be their last release with Warp. "Straight away we locked horns and it was clear it had to be something different. Even so, Rob was very supportive and suggested we integrate our love of jazz into our sound. We ended up with 3EP, which is something of a homage to our jazz heroes, but personally, I hate it. I think Mike probably does too because it's not really what we do. I think we listened to the pressure too much."
As Rutter tells it, Mitchell was interested in releasing a third B12 full-length, but every track B12 submitted was rejected. "I remember having a meeting in their office and Steve Beckett was there too. And they said, 'We've heard this all before, you've got to do something different and push the limits, show us how diverse you are.' All we knew how to do was play what we had in our heads. Then Rob passed away and that was it. We didn't release anything. That was the end of music for me. I stopped buying records. The door closed."
After years in the wilderness, Rutter and Golding reunited in 2006 to play live, including a set at the then recently-opened Berghain, and subsequently released new music and reissues on B12 Records. Again, the duo were surprised to be asked to return to the stage: "We asked the promoter of the London show, 'Why are you asking us to play a gig?' And he's like, 'Well, you're techno legends,' and we were just laughing about it because we couldn't believe it. We packed our entire studio into the back of my Mitsubishi Evo and the sound guy at the club was just laughing at us when we were setting it all up. We felt like dinosaurs."
Rutter has mixed feelings about the music they made during their comeback, but it was a chance to reevaluate B12's legacy with the benefit of hindsight. Writing about their Archive reissue series in The Wire, Derek Walmsley said they created "one of the most vivid sound palettes of early '90s electronic music."
B12 came to another halt in 2010. Rutter suffered an accident from which he was unlikely to recover—six years later, it's remarkable that he's walking and talking, let alone making music. The incident left an indelible mark on his latest solo productions. Orbiting Souls and Transient Life are built from the same palette as B12 used over two decades ago, but there's an imposing sense of emptiness and half-remembered dread that gives this new work a harrowing beauty. Writing music has been a vital part of the recovery process and Rutter has been more productive than he's been in years. He's set up a new sub-label called Firescope, has begun playing live again and is collaborating with a vocalist. He's not entirely free from his old misgivings—when reaching out to labels with his new music, he still had to deal with "loads of people saying 'this it too '90s'"—but he sees putting himself out there and being open to judgement as an important part of reentering everyday life.
One can't help wondering what might have been if B12 kept pursuing their little label rather than making their brush with the big time. But Rutter's new work is compelling enough to make such hypotheticals redundant. With every new release comes a chance for younger generations to discover one of the '90s' most underrated artists.