Paula Temple has never had this problem. The music she's released since 2013 has often been unmatched in its field, thanks to an intensity of personal feeling that comes through in her work, most notably on her debut album from this year, Edge Of Everything. While she shares certain hallmarks with many of her contemporaries—a huge sense of scale, kick drums like a boot to the jaw, a preference for end-of-days atmospheres—few match the emotional heft of Temple's work. For her, this sound is no fad. It's a deadly serious means of self-expression, and a way of reflecting on the myriad ills of the world today, which she feels with a sometimes paralysing gravity.
Temple has had a keen eye on music technology ever since she first became interested in making techno in the '90s. A friendship with Gerard Campbell, developer of the Notron, an obscure but prescient landmark in hardware MIDI sequencer design, led her to help develop his next strange tool, the MXF8 DJ controller, which presaged many of the digital DJing techniques that became standard practice in the 21st century. At Temple's new home studio in Amsterdam, we got an insight into the years of experience that built up to her current scene-leading sound as well as some of the key techniques and tools powering the new LP.
Tell me about the period between when you became a music lover and when you started making music yourself.
This would've been around age 16 or 17, although I'd started to learn how to DJ before making music. As a kid I begged my parents to buy me this cheesy Yamaha keyboard. They made my dream come true but once I had it I didn't know how to use it so it ended up being neglected.
I did actually learn to read sheet music before then. When I started high school at age 11 they were offering music classes, but I didn't have an instrument. No one in my family did—we weren't exactly musical. But the school had this room full of abandoned music equipment and they said, "Take your pick."
So, I chose the biggest thing in the room, which was a baritone. I was this little girl, I don't know why I chose it. I would practice for hours, torturing my parents and neighbours, but I got good quite quickly. Within six months I went from nothing to Grade Four. I was teaching myself from the books.
That's pretty serious, doing that under your own steam so quickly at that age.
I was Grade Five within a year and could read new music pretty quickly. Then I was asked to join an orchestra. I was the youngest person in it. It was overwhelming and I couldn't really handle it. I realise now as an adult that being in group situations like that triggers a sort of social anxiety. So there I am in the middle of this adult orchestra being like, "I can't follow this." Then they asked me to play something solo, probably because I was out of tune and not following everyone. So I quit. I could not handle that type of limelight. That was the end of classically trained music for me. I dropped all that and didn't consider it anymore.
Can you recall the period of discovering the tools and process behind making electronic music?
I was particularly infatuated with LFO. I read an interview with Mark Bell and he mentioned the Roland SH-101. So, guess what, my first synth was an SH-101, but I didn't fully appreciate it because I didn't really know how to program it. I'd just turn the knobs and get strange bleeps and super low basses out of it. But this was a long way from being put into the context of an actual track. I was just recording bits of bleeps and noises. I actually have archives with tonnes of stuff like that from back then.
I had heard of the 909 but it was completely unobtainable for me because they were already rare and expensive. So I got a sampler, the Akai S3000, which admittedly was still pretty expensive. I was swamped with Zip and floppy disks, just making my own kits.
Techno enthusiasts would share samples so someone would give you the 909 sounds and you'd stick them in your sampler. I remember being blown away that you could have the kicks used on the Red Planet records, proper Detroit kicks. Then you'd process them again and again to put your own spin on it.
Were there resources or people around you that could help show you things? Or were you figuring it out mainly through trial and error?
Mostly figuring it out myself. If I had the resources available to us today back when I was 18, it would've been so much easier and quicker. But there was nothing. Now there are university courses for electronic music production but there was none of that back then.
Apart from that, I was too shy to be in a network of people, let alone ask them about this sort of thing. So the main resource I had was magazines. Sound On Sound ended up being the best one for learning stuff, they would properly explain synthesis and production techniques. It would still take me a while because I'm not really the best at reading instructions. I never really read the manual, I just ignore it and get straight in there.
Those magazines were also full of adverts for the next best thing. I was constantly distracted being like, "I need to have this new synth in order to be good." Of course that's not true at all but you don't realise that at the time. So I was buying stuff I didn't understand. I remember buying a Roland XP-50 because it was a workstation that supposedly did everything. I never used it, it was a total waste of my money. Then I got a Roland JP-8000 and hated the sound. It was super trancey. So there I go again blowing all my money on something I didn't understand.
Speaking from the present, I want people to understand that you don't need much to make music nor feel pressure to acquire gear. A lot of what I'm doing nowadays is in the box, it's all available in one program. When I was first starting off, I was bombarded with, "I need this and this and this." At the time it was kind of true because you didn't have good computers so you needed all this external hardware. But now there's tonnes more flexibility.
Back then when I was learning all this, I'd pick up on production rumours. Things like Jeff Mills getting his extra click on the kick by overdriving the mixing desk. Or downsampling your kicks to make them extra crunchy and bassy—those types of things. By then DAWs were getting better quite rapidly, too.
My favourite outboard piece at the time was the Nord Modular. I ended up having two computers, one PC that was the modular editor for the Nord so I could make my own patches. The other was a Power Mac 7600, which was my music-making computer.
What was you day-to-day creative process like back then?
I wasn't gigging so much and I'd just moved to Sheffield. That's when I decided to start focussing on music full-time, at least for a period. Then if it didn't work out I'd cry and figure out another way to exist. I'd saved up just enough so I could survive for a few months.
My brain couldn't switch into a creative mode until nighttime started. My magic time would be between 10 PM and 3 AM. If I went over that it'd be quite pointless and I'd be dead the next day. I think it was quite an isolating time. I didn't really have weekday friends.
I wasn't really connected with the people I'd meet in the clubs. Of course, I was friendly with some of them. I spent most of my time with the inventor of the Notron, Gerard Campbell. He got me involved with one of his new inventions, the MXF8.
Just to be clear, the Notron is a strange, almost cult-classic-level sequencer and the MXF8 is like a MIDI controller for DJing, right?
Yep that's it. The MXF8 is a MIDI controller but in a DJ/live crossover way.
The MXF8 is a bizarre looking thing. It almost looks like a boutique stomp box or something. The Notron is also clearly one of the strangest sequencers ever made.
The MXF8 is a similar build to the Notron and it has Gerard's sense of humour. For instance, there's the Nothing button. It's just a kill switch, which is nice because when you kill everything you've got your effects trails tailing off. Then there's the question mark button, which is like a function or shift control.
Gerard had a fascination with motorbikes so he built everything to spec as if it was a Harley. We ended up hanging out every week. He'd come to all my gigs in the UK. We'd spend a lot of time setting our machines up and recording over-the-top noises and giggling like Beavis and Butt-Head.
It must've been great getting to know Gerard given how interesting both those machines are.
We met through Claude Young at The Orbit in Leeds. Gerard was interested in what I did and asked if I'd like to buy a Notron. Again, I had no clue. I had no interest in getting a sequencer!
You already had two computers!
Yeah I know, I still had no idea at the time. But then I really got into the Notron. I was making all my music with it. With the Notron, you can go with whatever you're hearing and feeling, the connection is immediate. I could set up multiple sequences that would all be sent to the same synth. Then I'd make the sequences all different lengths. One might be a regular number, like 16 steps, while another would be, say, seven, so you'd get all these overlapping, evolving sequences. Then you can move the little wheels around to change the pitch of an entire sequence or just an individual step. You could also sequence chords and each sequence can run in different directions, too. Combine all of that together and, before I knew it, I'd have a really interesting selection of chords and sequences.
I imagine having these studio sessions with a specific, limited task is a lot less pressure than working on a track.
It's better that way. I hate that feeling of starting a new project and thinking, "Where do I go from here?" I often fail when I have a specific goal. Sometimes I want to make an anthem, my summer anthem. Never happens. Or say I've heard a track that I really like and I want to make something along those lines. Even though I'm technically capable of making all the sounds, I don't feel it because it's already been done and it ends up bad. But having these sessions that are very specific and broken down, I end up with something that's really mine. Like that strange, ugly kick in "Cages." Some of the layers don't even sound like kicks anymore, it's just flattened-out, grizzly texture. Then I layer it with something more solid.
It's about dealing with creative blocks and coming up with new ideas through experimentation. I can quickly feel creatively bored if I'm doing the same things I've always done. That's when I'll give myself a little challenge, which I call rules. It's also to limit myself so I'm not drowning in possibilities. A rule could be something as simple as only using Ableton synths. Or explore every distortion you've got. Mix hardware and software distortions. Make different distortion chains. Then see what comes from that. I've found new effects chains like this that end up being a key character on a drum kit or synths.
Another reason for doing these small experiments is that, since I've got limited time, the idea of making a full track often feels impossible. Having mini-experiments is doable within the few hours I've got each week. I know all of those experiments aren't wasteful and that they'll become useful at some point.