Luke Slater is a doer, not a thinker. He is a music man, not a scenester. He is a no-nonsense realist, not a poser. Just look at his humble shoes: a pair of black and tan bowling crawlers, only one step removed from his single sports obsession — roller-skating. Not roller-blading, mind you, roller-skating.
Slater is a man with two selves, a musician of split allegiance. Although most think of Slater as the futuristic techno boffin with an electro-funk fetish, championed on the albums Freek Funk (NovaMute, 1997) and the more abstract Wireless (NovaMute, 1999), another Slater exists. A musician of indeterminate age — “I am old enough to know I am getting older,” he says — who still loves the prog rock of his youth (Genesis, King Crimson), a renegade who can turn sentimental at the drop of a needle, Slater is a jumble of contradictions. Just when he seemed headed for a frazzled existence eking out alien atmospheres created from Internet and short-wave sources, Slater released Alright on Top (Mute, 2002), an electro-funk vocal experiment that may alienate less adventurous listeners. You can call it synthetic funk or commercially ambitious or an '80s flashback, but don't call it nostalgic.
“I can fall into [nostalgia] sometimes, and I hate it,” says Slater, lounging in the offices of Mute NYC. “I don't like to look backwards. You can end up being so nostalgic that you are just one big nostalgia. Then you walk around saying, ‘Remember this? It used to be so good.’ It was not better back when; it was just different. I try to look forward and find some excitement in that. Things are never as good as you remember.
Nevertheless, Alright on Top basks in the faded glow of synth pop and New Romantic reminiscence, hearkening back to the days of Ultravox, Visage and even OMD. Slater and longtime partner Alan Sage brought on vocalist/lyricist Ricky Barrow (ex — The Aloof of Red Snapper lineage) for the project, and the trio created a monster work somewhere between the dark melodies of Gary Numan and Ultravox and the galloping beats of Detroit techno. There is definitely an edge — the gritty 4 a.m. pulse of clubland spilling out onto an empty city street — but there is also a soulful smoothness and a feel-good vibe that seamlessly merges electro, funk and techno principles.
Is Alright on Top a reaction to boredom with the dance scene and its uniformity of ideas?
Yeah, pretty much. I have always been like that, and whenever you get on a road that seems a little bit straight, you got to get off it, man. It does get boring.
After the record was completed, did you consider its commercial possibilities?
I wanted every track to be a single. Everyone is jumping on the '80s thing with the album, saying, “It's retro — where are you coming from with the '80s?” Okay, there is a lot of '80s feeling in it, but I didn't think to myself, “Let's get Ultravox and Visage and take bits of that.” It's more that I really like those records.
I never saw Ultravox and Visage as being commercial. They are darker, and they were lining the synths up in place of guitars. I wanted to make that wall-of-sound thing with the synths. I treated the synths like, “You make this sound, you make that sound, and then do it all together.” When you open up that sound and you've got that modulated, wide bass sound — I love that so much. I have six Roland SH-101s doing it, so you got this massive sound.
Most will consider this album as a total left turn for you, but is it?
Imagine you have a box of ideas and ways of doing things — these sounds. I wanted to pick out of that box certain things that I love and I have sometimes used before and sometimes haven't and put them in the songs. So you have the structure of the songs, but the actual music behind it isn't typical; it still has that kind of electronic flavor that you don't really hear in songs. It is a little bit risky in places. It is twisted here and there.
It's great to hear the old-school sounds of a song like “Doctor of Divinity” or “I Can Complete You,” but on a new record. Do all the songs feature multiple keyboards?
On “Nothing at All,” the bass line is four or five keyboards: a Korg Monopoly, a Moog, a couple of SH-101s, a [Studio Electronics] ATC-1 and an Access Virus. I wanted it so that when we did it live, every track would use the same synth so we could really re-create it live, just like people with guitars. But every synth has its own job, making a particular sound and keeping it through the album. That is the kind of flavor.
Did you use the Access Virus throughout the album?
Yes, it has a kind of gritty Orbital feel. I use it over the bass. And I used the Korg MS2000 a lot. We try not to go too deep with the whole thing. Instead of sitting there for hours searching for sounds, if we like a sound, we use it. And the MS2000 has a great arpeggiator in it. We didn't even change anything; it was like using the presets. I think it is buried enough in there to just have an effect. I used to use the original 909s and 808s — the real boxes — but the sounds this time were all Real Audio files. I didn't want to use any old stuff — only the synths for the sound they make.
Where did you get your audio files?
There wasn't much in the studio, maybe six Macs and a fast Internet connection. Over the years, we have pulled as many sound files from anywhere as we could — whether it was kicks, snares, weird sounds — and put them on a server. We had this massive box; we spent much of the time editing sounds on another Mac and using them in the tracks. The idea to keep everything in the computer world, for me, is the best way to do it, but not for mixing. We still need the mixing desk and all the other shit. But gradually creating the sounds in the Mac is the perfect thing.
A sound in “Doctor of Divinity” sounds like Aborigines mumbling.
I was in Australia, where I met this girl who gave me two original Aborigine LPs, real basic stuff. That also sounds rather sci-fi, some people think. I put it down to an evil voodoo doctor, a guy with a black cape and long black hair doing test tube experiments.
Another sound is like a reading from a children's book.
I bought a Moog on eBay. I also got a lot of speech synthesizers, and I found one called a Magnavox Odyssey. It was only released in America, and you can get a speech cartridge for it. I was on eBay buying these bits and bobs. It just had a voice that I had not heard before. We use Speak and Spell on the album, as well — anything that made a voice. It's a weird concept.
What is the Speak and Spell saying?
This takes me back to a lecture I heard as a kid. This guy was doing an experiment with sound that was really interesting. He played a sentence of someone speaking but not filling in every letter. So you heard this odd mumble. Then the guy told you what had been said. Then you listen to it back, and you can understand every word. Because you now know what it says, your brain fills in the missing letters. With the Speak and Spell, we try and relate it to medicine.
“Stars and Heroes” sounds like a pop song with Aphex Twin programming.
I wouldn't have even touched on Aphex Twin for that. I wanted a slow, high-energy track very big on the strings. I like very dramatic music. You are thinking of “Only You,” where we are just having some fun with beats. Instead of spending three hours on a synth, we spent three hours chopping up the beat. All the scratching is real. For me, it is like taking a real song, like a love song, and just putting something weird underneath it.
This album sounds sleazy, like the title.
Sleazy is good! I am always looking for sleazy. Sleazy, sexy and dramatic. Those are good elements for songs. Sex is important in records. You've got to have that kind of feeling.
How did you effect the tracks?
Often, we did a track, put it back in the computer and then took apart the track as a sample and put a filter on it. Most of the tracks have been through the loop a few times, so we could get the whole track and then treat it afterwards. Nothing was run live and that was the end of it. We kept on processing everything. It gets more reprocessed every time I record. The quality of technology has gotten better. Things are getting faster. You can whiz in and out; you can slam it everywhere without losing anything. It is not that time-consuming, and it is easier, whereas before you were waiting 10 minutes to transfer a segment of audio over Ethernet to another computer. Now you can whip it around like fireworks. I'm always edging for that faster connection.
Do people think you are selling out?
Yes, that is the question that always comes up. All I am trying to do is put together some good songs with the music I like and play it live.
What happened to the harder techno?
People say, “What happened to the underground — have you given up?” Musicwise, I am at a different place for what I want to write. I like so many different types. I am not doing what Ritchie Hawtin is doing, for example, and he is not doing what I am doing.
It's healthy to look back and incorporate what you love into what you are doing now. You can't always be searching for the next thing. You have to rely on the language you know.
That's true. By putting together the things you already know, you can create something new. That is how I see this album: It is stuff I know how to do — stuff I have done before, but done in a different way.
Luke Slater Gear
Akai S6000 sampler
Alesis R100 power amp (Yamaha)
Alesis R500 power amp (Tannoy)
Apple Macintosh G4s (6)
Apple Macintosh laptop G4s (3)
Emagic Logic Audio
Korg MS2000 analog modeled synth
Roland SH-101 synths (2)
Sony DMX-R100 digital mixing consoles (2)
Spacestation Zero Studio
Studio Electronics ATC-1 Tone Chameleon
Tannoy System 12 monitors
Tascam DA-40 DAT recorder
TC Electronic D-Two delay
TC Electronic FireworX
TC Electronic Finalizer
Yamaha NS-10 monitors