Holly Dicker talks tunes with the UK techno artist.
The decision to remain anonymous was a simple one: it was about creating "something mythical," artistic freedom and doing something that would last. If you've seen Harris perform you'll know that he's never in disguise. "I don't try and hide because I'm a personable person really," he says. "I love to meet people and talk to people about music. I love to meet people who are connecting with the music and more often than not end up back at their house for an after party, so we carry on connecting."
He's exceptionally animated when talking about records. Music—and radio—have been a fundamental part of his life, ever since childhood. Over three hours and a slightly wobbly Skype connection, I had the absolute pleasure of unpacking A Sagittariun's time-hopping sound.
I was only a toddler in 1977 but like with all good music, you seek these things out. Steely Dan were two American musicians, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, and some of their early records were the most radio-friendly. But Aja represents the pinnacle—in my opinion—of their recording career. It's been sampled quite heavily over the years by various artists. The track "Peg" was most famously sampled by De La Soul on the track "Eye Know."
Have you ever sampled anything from Steely Dan?
I've never sampled anything from Steely Dan, no. I don't really do that much sampling. Aja is not really an influence on my techno productions, necessarily. It's there definitely as an influence on layered sound, warmth and a damn funky feel. It's just a really great album. They're an understated but hugely important American group.
So this wasn't the music you grew up on, it was something you stumbled across later in life?
As a child it would have been on the radio, the early hits like "Reelin' In The Years," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number." But I love pop music, I love melody, that's why ABBA were on my list originally. I don't find it an embarrassment to say that ABBA wrote fucking great pop music.
Nor me. ABBA made hit after hit.
Hit after hit after hit.
Did you listen to a lot of radio as a child?
Most of the music in our household was from the radio, and I was absolutely fascinated by it. We all used to tape the chart run-down on a Sunday. You'd sit there with your radio and portable cassette player then press record and pause to tape the music that was being played, and then listen back to it.
I was absolutely mad about radio and I actually wanted to go into radio as a profession—which I kind of did. I lived in Bristol. We had BBC Radio Bristol and they had just started a youth program. One hour of it was dance music and the other half was indie, alternative and punk, which was actually what I was into at the time. I literally just phoned up the presenter and said: 'Do you need help? Do you need somebody?' And she said: ‘Yeah, come on in, we could always do with someone to answer the phones.' I was working on this show for three years.
How old were you at this stage?
I think I was 16 and I'd have done it up until I moved to London, after I finished A-levels. Actually the show got axed, we were all made redundant, then I moved to London after that summer, in 1992. So I did the radio thing and then I went to London with dreams to continue with it, but as soon as I hit London and I hit the nightlife, I had a reassessment of what I wanted to do, and that was to be more heavily involved in the music business.
The Colour Of Spring
I think The Colour Of Spring is a very sophisticated album. It's very melancholic, but it's very uplifting, too. And I like that kind of music, I like music that's tinged with sadness but it's actually got this glow, this light to it. It's sad and happy in equal measure, you know? The thing is, if you read all the backstory of the band, especially about Mark Hollis the vocalist, I loath to use the world "troubled" but he was starting to become disillusioned with the recording industry. I can relate to the fact that they just wanted to make music, but were part of this industry, they were part of this machine that expected them to deliver hit records.
They almost became anti-industry, didn't they? Is this something that resonates with you, as an artist who chose to buck the system and be anonymous?
The thing is, I have worked in the music industry for many years and I do have a backstory, but it's not particularly interesting. The whole ethos of A Sagittariun for me is to be able to a duck out and duck back in. It's not really about who I am, it's about the music—as cliché as that may be. I'm not doing it to amass DJ work or 10,000 followers on Facebook. And I guess it's because I am an industry player—for want of a better expression—that I wanted to do the complete opposite thing with A Sagittariun. I think that is what I am trying to do, not to play "the game" but to do things in a very honest and organic way.
Has not playing "the game" been a hindrance in any way?
I do this for the music, but we're in this culture where the only kind of remuneration a lot of artists have for their music is through DJ gigs, performances, and therein lies this quandary. I enjoy DJing, I also enjoy earning from that—that's kind of work—but my anonymity has, in a way, made me anonymous to promoters. Then again, I didn't do this to become a full-time DJ.
I'm very old school in that the artists I used to love—when I first got into techno and electronic music, it didn't matter who they were. You just bought a record with a name on it. I was following their music and almost the myth of who they were. With A Sagittariun, I wanted to do it my way and the way I was used to following artists back then.
This certainly is the strangest record on the list.
It's just soaring on every level. It's one of those records I put on and I can't do anything else; it stops me in my tracks. It's just the juxtaposition of this soprano voice and song, and then this edgy NYC female vocal comes in and it's very sassy and of that '80s era. And the beats are absolutely lethal.
I think "juxtaposition" works to describe some of your A Sagittariun productions too.
Yeah, you're probably right. All these tracks are on the list because this is how I like my music, and this is how I like to make my music. And I think when Malcolm McLaren is sitting in a studio, with a producer saying: 'I want a soprano opera performance, I want a New York rapper, and I want me on it,' the producer's probably going: 'You're fucking mad.'
If we were to relate it to my music, I know you did the review of Contortion. Well, on "Concrete Walls," all that trippy shit is Santana. You know, the guitarist?
I love it even more now.
It's basically Santana going through a delay pedal. So you've got these charging techno beats, and then you've got Santana in there. Because I don't want to make a record that's just charging techno beats, I want to make a record that people are like: "What the fuck is that?"
It was just a happy accident. I wanted to bring in something from another world.
You said earlier that you don't do a lot of sampling, but there's quite a bit of sampled dialogue going on, isn't there? Especially on your last album.
I almost class that as a different kind of sampling. I've always had this love of dialogue samples and that's actually come from Adrian Sherwood for On-U Sound and Tackhead. Tackhead used a lot of chopped up dialogue samples and they would come from anywhere—political speeches at a rally, to just some mad film that Sherwood would have recorded on late night television.
What attracts you to this kind of sampling?
However irrelevant it is, you can shape it to make it sound relevant. It's got a message in there, even if it's just a line from a film. You take it out of that context, put it into a new context as the primary narrative and it can really flip something.
Baby I Love You So
When I was living in London I used to—still do—love reggae and heavy dub music. I used to listen to Kiss FM, not just for my techno fix but also for my dub fix. There were a couple of DJs, one called Manasseh and one called Joey Jay, who is Norman Jay's brother. Manasseh used to have a wicked radio show and he just played this heavy, thick dub for three hours at 1 AM in the morning. There I heard this track "Baby I Love You So," and at first I thought it was Adrian Sherwood because it has all of his signatures: the dialogue, gun shots, delay and reverb. But when I went out and bought the record it was Colourbox on 4AD, an indie label.
Did your love of dub and reggae come from Bristol originally?
I didn't go to reggae parties or blues parties in Bristol, no. But I would have been onto the whole On-U Sound thing. There was a big show in Bristol, an On-U Sound tour. You had African Head Charge doing this insane trippy dub stuff, and you had Dub Syndicate which were just heavy dub, and you'd have Mark Stewart and Tackhead doing this industrial noise, and then you'd have Gary Clail who was sort of rapping over the top of On-U Sound dubs.
Strike The Balance
Dub Syndicate was built around a drummer called Lincoln "Style" Scott, who's now passed away—he was actually murdered in Jamaica a couple of years ago. But he was in a band called Roots Radics, who I remember seeing in Bristol playing live, as well as a band called Creation Rebel, who were on On-U Sound.
Dub Syndicate were a roving troupe of musicians, produced by Adrian Sherwood. He'd take these sessions, these tracks, these jams, and then he'd just completely trip the hell out of them.
How influential has Adrian Sherwood been on the A Sagittariun project?
When I sit down to make a record, I sometimes think: "What would Adrian Sherwood do if he was sat in my seat now?"
Have you ever met him in person?
I never met Adrian but, funnily enough, he's on my hit list. I know that he could work with a techno record and flip it. I'm a techno artist that would love to be on On-U Sound, that sums up my vision of what I'm trying to do. I just want to do something for my own passion, and I'd rather be on On-U Sound than the biggest techno label in the charts. If you are reading this, Adrian, please give me a call. [laughs]
I would like to point out that from here on your list consists mainly of techno records from 1993. Were you aware of that?
Believe it or not, no. I just picked the records that really have made a massive impression on me.
Was it a significant year for you?
Yes, 1993 would have been a pivotal year. That was when I moved to London and discovered techno. I left Bristol still listening to a lot of punk and hardcore, but when I moved to London I would have turned on the radio and come across a pirate station. Then I found Kiss FM, which had Colin Dale and Colin Faver—rest in peace. And those two guys for me are the complete and utter reason why I'm here today and talking about all this.
Colin Faver would normally play the faster, heavy techno and rave. The BPMs would be quite high. He had a very distinct voice. It was sort of nasal and high-pitched but he was a fantastic radio DJ. And then straight after Colin Faver was Colin Dale. And again, Dale had this great radio voice. The first hour of his show would be techno—the real club stuff. And then second half would be abstract, ambient, all this kind of Warp, Artificial Intelligence, and the rest coming through. I used to tape every show, every week, without fail. I've still got a lot of tapes with me.
Dan Curtin is utterly underrated, in my opinion. I cannot believe some of the music he was making in 1993. It's from another planet. This Origins EP on Metamorphic, it's like a space flight. You're transported somewhere. The expression "timeless" is always banded about, but for me this really is. It's timeless because it is like it was made in another time. If it wasn't made in '93, it could be made tomorrow. And I subscribe to that feeling heavily myself. I'm trying to make music that's not of today, but could be. Of course it is of today, but it's of yesterday and tomorrow as well.
Why do you think '93 was such a bountiful year for techno?
Producers were just taking a bit of this, a bit of that, putting it all into this melting pot, and in comes this happy accident which—in my books—makes a timeless techno record. A lot of the tracks on Elasticity were about taking a techno sound or riff or idea and putting it to a 90 BPM reggae drum pattern. And on Dream Ritual, it was taking my love of slower music, so the On-U Sound reggae, with this futuristic techno sound and gelling the two.
Do you have an original copy, with the 3D glasses?
I don't have glasses in mine. But I've got it in my hands right now. It's no repress, I've had this for 20-odd years! There's a Kenny Larkin track on here, "Tedra," which is one of the most emotional pieces of techno I've ever heard. It's a real tear-jerker. And then you have "At Les" by Carl Craig which is... Actually, this album, the more I look at it, it's just filled with utter classics.
Is this the sort of music that would go into an A Sagittariun set?
I would definitely try get this stuff in at the right moments, but it really requires the right time, club and people, because not everybody has the patience to get wiggy with it. I remember playing Berlin Loftus Hall a couple of years ago. It wasn't that busy, it was 7 or 8 AM, and there were 30 people there just smiling away. When you're in that position you're like: "You know what, they're with me on this. We can really go deep. I'm not having to force people to dance by way of BPMs or accessibility," and I think on that set I was dropping some really obscure techno, probably very much in this Virtualsex mould, the lesser known Rhythim Is Rhythim records.
I remember playing this at that Berlin party. Actually I've played "Rise" a couple of times since, because it's very dance floor but I just never hear anybody play that record out. It's techno, but it's melodic and thick and building. As a DJ I like to play something funky, and I want to get people dancing, but then once you've got them there and you've had them there for a few hours, once you've reached that point, then you can start to be a bit more experimental. But those kind of gigs, for me anyway, are few and far between, so we'll see what happens.
"Step To Enchantment" is probably one of the best techno tracks of all time. I've been thinking about Jeff a lot recently and I thought, I'm going to dig up that Live At The Liquid Room - Tokyo CD that he did. I've been listening to it in my car and it's absolutely ferocious. I used to promote parties here in Bristol. I put Jeff on a couple of times in the '90s so it's the Jeff I last heard, in a club, and it's just this rollicking, romping, take-no-prisoners techno.
It's a tenuous link, but the meditation theme of this record is reminding me again of Elasticity—though I'm not sure how meditative this Mills record is.
It's not meditative in the sense that one could imagine putting it on and lying back. It's more like Steve Reich and Philip Glass when they're making this looping music that's minimal. To the average listener, not much happens, but for those who really get inside the music there is lots going on, very subtle changes. So, yes, Jeff Mills is not meditative, but there's this minimal, almost tantric quality to it. It doesn't matter if it's 0 BPM ambient music, or 140 BPM techno, it's got that same mechanism that one can lock into and loose oneself in.
Speaking of ambient, I was surprised that not a single ambient record made the list.
They were down...I guess I just got carried away with too much techno.
What is your ultimate ambient record then?
The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld
I love The Orb. Their first album was an absolute mindblower, and their second album as well, U.F.Orb, is really great. Through The Orb I would have gone and listened to Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, and discovered what they were doing. Then you understand Eno as well. I love finding out about music through someone else, through a source. I'm interested in the process of making music, so it's nice to get a bit of an insight into somebody else via what's going into their own melting pot. It just makes it more of an enjoyable ride, wading through lots of music and finding the stuff that you like. I never tire of it.
I've saved my personal favourites for last. I had to look up Koenig Cylinders but I'm a Lenny Dee and Industrial Strength fan. This track got me pretty excited. This is probably the most in-your-face.
Very. Where did you come across it?
This track boils down to Andrew Weatherall and when I used to go to Sabresonic, which was his weekly—I'm pretty sure it was weekly—party in a venue called Happy Jacks around London Bridge way. It was the best club, absolutely mental. And Weatherall at that time was basically playing everything from hard techno to dub. This was a record that I discovered through his DJ sets. I think he put it on his Essential Mix from '93 or '92.
It's this mammoth record. It opens on a swirling, trippy, distorted riff and it's just looping and looping, and then this kick drum comes in, and the hi-hats, and it's like horses at the Grand National. For me it was just a mad techno-trance record that was probably the hardest thing I would ever listen to or play. I understand it may have been the inspiration for Underworld and the track they did called "Rez." It's a fine example of: "Fuck what anybody else thinks, this is what we're gonna do."
We Only Have
I've put this in because, obviously, I purchase and I play loads of new techno music. I don't play in clubs that often, but I felt compelled to bring it up to date with this one. It ticks all the boxes for me: It's otherworldly, it's psychedelic, trippy, it's distorted, it's jacking, it's funky, it's raw. I've played it out a few times, it's wiggy, it's just brilliant.
Do you know Marco Bernardi personally?
Marco is originally from Glasgow. He moved down to Bristol a few years ago, and he took over the bookings at Timbuk2 for a while. I was wanting to do a night there and we met up and within two minutes it was like we knew each other for years. I just think that we are in this similar space. We're producers that have come from a background in music that's easily 20 years, or more. We've both grown up through this '90s period and we're both making music on our own terms. He actually remixed A Sagittariun as well, the fifth Elastic Dreams release.
He's very hardware-based whereas I'm actually very software-based, with a bit of hardware. But I think musically we straddle a very similar place. It's like I found a kindred spirit, on my own doorstep. And if we are trying to tie up a few ends, in the '90s people were making really futuristic music—but they were selling copies as well. So they were making money from producing, without having to compromise in order get gigs. I feel that's not the way now, and it's a bit of a shame. But I understand it is what it is. There are underground pockets where really good stuff is happening, but there are so many great tunes I buy from people I never really see in the spotlight, so this is a shout out to all the underdogs.