From his beginnings playing in Brighton and London to a mixed gay goth/alternative crowd, he went on to be one of a small core – along with the likes of Colin Faver, Colin Dale and Joey Beltram – representing true-school techno in the UK mega-raves of the start of the 1990s. Since then he has been at the heart of, but slightly removed from, the techno establishment, always maintaining a strong profile, even during the difficult years around the millennium when his Novamute output swerved the horrors of loop techno and instead fit perfectly with the punkiness of electroclash and Vitalic.
Since 2009, he has been at the heart of Berlin as a part of the Ostgut Ton family, resurrecting his Planetary Assault Systems alias for a series of powerful exploratory techno releases, and now he is digging back into his dreamy 1990s electronica catalogue – recorded as 7th Plain – for the first release on Ostgut’s new A-TON offshoot dedicated to “ambient, archive and alternative music.” For this conversation we met him in a boat cafe in West London and had a pleasant afternoon chat about LSD, senses of possibility and whether and how the ambient room could function in 2016.
What are you working on at the moment, Luke?
Well apart from doing press… Planetary Assault Systems is a major concern. Especially as time’s gone by, I find I work on lots and lots of things at the same time but there’ll be one major thing that’s at the centre, and the Planetary Assault Systems live show is the main thing right now: we’ve been rehearsing for that just recently.
You say “we” – you mean more than one person is playing live?
Yes it’s me and Steve Bicknell – you know him?
From [foundational London techno club] Lost, right?
Yes, in days gone by, that’s right. So we’re coming together on that, really for the sake of doing certain things live – I mean really live – that you need two people for. It’s very important to me to do it live, while saying it’s OK to use computers. There’s been a big drive recently with the whole analogue thing, but the thing is, I can remember when that was the only option, and I don’t really want to have to do that unless I have to, so I’m really interested in the way that computers come into play in the live show.
« There’s been a big drive recently with the whole analogue thing, but I’m really interested in the way that computers come into play in the live show. »
Back in the day that was the techno thing to do: use the best available technology.
Yes it’s about looking forward, isn’t it? I don’t really want to go back, so the only way forward is to embrace whatever technology I can. That was totally the case in the beginning – embracing what was new, what was there and what you could do with it – and I still feel like that. Different generations of techno musicians have a different vibe on it but that’s my vibe. I don’t really want to see the computer or show it off, I just want to use it. Maybe cover up the Apple logo [smiles]. So we’re steaming ahead with the rehearsals and that’s going well. Then there’s the 7th Plain stuff which has kind of made a resurgence in the background, and LB Dub Corb which is more tribal staff which hasn’t really finished but is just chilling out a bit, and there’s travelling around for the gigs, and running the label with Heidi – Mote Evolver – so yeah each day is not a gentle day. Each day there’s plenty to do.
Are you someone who’s good at compartmentalising your time?
Yes I’ve got much better at that actually – I’m quite strict. I just sacrifice things for the sake of one thing. You can’t have everything so I have to let some things go and absolutely ignore everything else no matter what happens. Anything could be going on outside, distractions are everywhere, but I’ll keep working.
What kind of things do you have to say “no” to?
Family, emails, accounting, all the baggage, all the things you have to do each day – I have to forget about all that and just crack on. It’s funny I was just thinking about this on the tube train coming here: whatever you do, that’s what you’ve done. So, getting in the shit for not doing something might be worth the effort, if the thing that you are applying your mind to is really worth it in terms of – hopefully – meaning something to somebody else. And with the music that’s all I really want. I just want to reach people with what I’m doing… same as every other artist.
Do you ever worry that that’s not happening – that you’re just doing the same old same old?
Well it’s always interesting out there. I don’t get it so much with gigs, actually, they’re usually good, but I do get some dark periods – the darkest periods for me are between finishing an album and releasing it. It’s like going through hell. I’ve done the bit that I like doing and then I’ve just got to wait and see what people think of it. It’s not a doubt about the music so much… but I’ve suffered with depression in the past so with me there’s always this swing going on. My days consist of trying to temper the swing of emotions and balance feelings. The black dog is always waiting; everything is about avoiding it.
But at the same time, as I’ve said before, I accept it: it’s part of the gig. When everything’s completely okay I get fidgety [he clicks his fingers rapidly] that, like, nothing’s really biting. There’s got to be this bite. I would have thought as I got older I would have left that behind me but actually it gets more intense, where there has to be this edge to things. It’s not a negative thing, where something bad has to happen or anything like that, but there just needs to be this edge to life. I think I make it a bit of a nightmare for people who are close to me by constantly pushing to the edge where it’s unstable, where there’s a big risk of going wrong or right. But I actually get off on that. It’s all exploration for me.
Does this help you stop getting stuck in a rut creatively? You’re part of the Berlin techno establishment now, so it would be very easy for you to make formulaic tunes and still achieve success… there’s a lot of it out there.
Yes there is, and it serves a purpose. The thing I’ve always liked about Ostgut, though, is the Arts influence in what they’re doing. Not what you read about – the bouncer at Berghain and all of that kind of thing. At the heart of it, it’s very much an arts-compelled kind of drive, and for me that’s a complete godsend. There’s always an element where you can bring art into it, and things don’t have to stick to a formula. It’s good if they think it’s good, and I find that really exciting – the enthusiasm in that is really important. I feel London could really learn a lot. I wish it would, in fact. And that’s why we’ve had a long relationship, because there’s a mutual exploration of music.
On the new Planetary Assault Systems album – it’s hard to tell if I’m being primed by the colourful artwork to think this – but it feels very expressive, opened out, where a lot of that “Berlin type” of techno can be folded in on itself and introspective.
That’s nice of you to say. For me, I’ve written a lot of records that are thought out beforehand, but when it came to Arc Angel there was a moment of « I’m just gonna write ». I can’t draw to save my life but I really felt like « I’m just gonna paint with sound », I’m just gonna do it, I’m not going to worry about what it is, where it fits, is it this? is it that? is it abstract? whatever: I’m just gonna write. So I did and that’s the outcome. If there’s a purpose to anything I do, it’s that I always want to enthusiastically prod people to open their minds, again. Like, here we are in 2016. I can see things are closing down; I can see things are becoming very conservative. So maybe open up a bit again, maybe let go a bit more. Maybe that just comes from me wanting those things for myself and for me to go even more that way – but I definitely couldn’t have gone into the studio and written another straight club album. That just wasn’t in me.
What influence has digging back through the 7th Plain material had on all this?
That was really hard going. So, I got all the DATs and the tapes, and I had to go through all of them, find all the old tracks, going back to ’94, and it was very emotional. I didn’t like it really. Like, « fuck, I remember doing that but I haven’t listened to it for so long », and there’s all this emotion tied up in it…
« The darkest periods for me are between finishing an album and releasing it. It’s like going through hell. »
Because of life events you were remembering or because of the music itself?
Because of real things that were happening. Those days were a very open minded time in music and in society, but it was also a very hard time for me. So there’s this thing going on where it’s beautiful because of certain things I was feeling, but I’m glad I’m not there any more. I don’t want to do it again – I got everything digitised and I’m never going to open those DATs up again now.
And did this feed into the sounds you were making in Arc Angel?
I think so. I suppose it was a melancholy, nostalgic thing about what it was like when things were more open-minded. Is there going to be another Summer of Love? Are we going to turn round and say, « no – we don’t want this heavy greed that could creep into the culture »? It made me remember who I was, and it felt like a test about whether I still believe in certain things – and I do. That moved things in my mind I think. I felt that, well, I can use those bits and hang on to them, because actually I do think they’re very important. And so 7th Plain has leaked into Planetary in that way.
’94 was an interesting moment because it was just that point when everything that had been held together around the central idea of « rave » – and you’d played in those peak era raves, of course – really started to splinter apart. But nonetheless there were still very strong lines of direct connection between techno, jungle, Balearic, trance, hippie stuff, even soul and jazz…
There was definitely cross-pollination going on and that was really great. It’s dangerous to compare then to now. Is it different now? Of course. And they were definitely good days, in a lot of good ways. A lot of people were trying things, going, « what the hell, I’m going to see what’s out there and see whether I want to lead this life or this life or this life. » I think that’s a really healthy thing.
So is this another reason you gravitate to Ostgut and Berghain – because they also have a bohemian agenda in that way?
I think they do, yes. Or I don’t think they have an opinion on any type of person, and that’s a great thing. One of the first places I ever played as a resident was in London. It was a club called Troll in Soundshaft [a now-closed small venue on the side of famous gay club Heaven], which was a mixed/gay night, and that was just another world. That was my place in the world. I decided that’s exactly what I’d been looking for, because it was a whole mess of everything and everyone, and that was just great.
Right – that was one of the first places that ever played Detroit techno in the UK, wasn’t it? alongside stuff like Front 242?
Sure, I remember playing a couple of Front 242 records there myself. But it was a big mix, there was Chicago acid, a lot of more soulful stuff, then new beat and all the more Italo stuff… and for me that was the start, that was square one, that was the place where I went, « I want things to always be like this, I want to think of things in this way. » And then after that, Berghain was the first club that came along where I went « oh look, here it is, it’s come along again! » So that’s a big plus in my book.
And I’ve been hearing about the Elektroakustischer Salon at Berghain, which is kind of an ambient thing, right?
Yeah, I did the ambient thing a few weeks back for the 7th Plain launch. It’s in the hall beside Berghain. And I was thinking, well, hmm, ambient rooms… I really want them to come back, but you’ve really got to get it right for an ambient room. Otherwise it doesn’t work, it’s just a bar or whatever. But I walked in and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Everything was in red, this cushion-soft red, in a hall that didn’t feel like a hall, a very good soundsystem, and absolutely no beats at all, no drums. And I thoroughly enjoyed it! It was like doing a sermon. It felt nice, I liked it, they got it right!
« If there’s a purpose to anything I do, it’s that I always want to enthusiastically prod people to open their minds. »
A lot of rave-era chillout rooms relied on a lot of people being on a lot of LSD…
Well people do what they do, right? I think only a fool thinks that there’s a way we can all go through life without experimenting with different things. What kind of society would this be if we weren’t like that, if we didn’t have the urge to explore? Obviously some people can manage it better than others… but as humans we’ve been exploring since the beginning. We’ve never been happy with just being, there’s always got to be this, « ooh what’s this over there? and what’s all that about? what’s going on there? » And I like that, I think it’s a good way of living. Maybe not the most secure way of living, though [smiles]. Of course, if you’d asked me about this in 1994, I’d have been 100% convinced that what I’d just said was 100% correct and should be applied to every single person. If you ask me now, I can see the other side – I still believe it, but it’s not a war I’m waging any more.
Arc Angel certainly looks like a psychedelic record.
I really wanted colour to come back. I was getting really bored of black and white – I like colour. Before I saw the cover, they told me it was colourful, but when they brought that baby out – when I saw what they’d done –, it was a trip, and I thought, « yeah, this is absolutely what I want to see on the record ». I don’t know how Viron [Erol Vert, regular Ostgut collaborator] got those colours, I don’t know how they did it, but I’m very pleased with that.
Luke Slater – Stomp
Are you now hopeful for your music to be consumed in contexts other than the techno club more?
Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to place my music in front of people wherever I possibly can. Any opportunity to do that is good, as long as I’m sticking to the music that I like and I’m doing anyway, rather than catering to a different space that might only be used for one type of music. Rather than trying to fit in, what I’m doing in different places is an exciting prospect. I think Berlin’s really going in a good direction for that.
For a long time the only place you’d hear electronic music off the dancefloor was in art spaces, which could be great but could lose spontaneity and the rough-and-ready quality that came with rave backrooms.
Mmm, rough-and-ready is important! You’ve got to think of the street as well. More than ever now I’m feeling this idea that the music I’m writing could fit in more artistic places, because a lot of other electronic music has become a bit more pacified and regular and easy-access, so I can see that sort of shift where the arts world, if you like – the people on the other side – might embrace the things that are more niche. It’s something I’m always thinking about.
There’s a lot of interesting, very abstract art/electronic music crossover now – I’m thinking Arca, Chino Amobi, Oneohtrix Point Never…
Sure but that radical kind of niche music often has fit in with the art world – whereas I’m more envisioning the art world adopting authentic rhythmic-based music. Like my music, sure, yes, but more widely and conceptually, the art of rhythm whether in drum, melody or whatever. I suppose Berghain’s latest win in the Culture Department is a good example of that rhythmic music being accepted as art. Certainly that’s something I think London should embrace more…
Do you think ahead with your work, beyond the current project?
Mmmmm…. yeaahhh…. a bit. In as much as I decide on a main drive of what I want to do, and if it feels good I go with that. But I certainly don’t think beyond a couple of years, because things are very variable. I try and keep things in the now, but I’m only happy if I’m working on something, there always has to be an idea or a challenge with whatever I’m doing out there. I have a lot of fun, though. I have a lot more fun with gigs than I used to – I dunno why, I’m just a happier person than I used to be, I suppose. The gigs can be great. Travelling is harder, but the gigs are excellent.
Luke Slater – Love
Are you someone who can survive on not much sleep?
Yeah, I’m not bad. Once you get on a roll, it just dies away… I don’t have a problem with that side at all. I’m used to it.
And you still seem to believe in those moments of dancefloor magic.
Well, I’m still looking for them, anyway. Manner of appreciation is a funny thing, though. Different crowds show it in different ways, and this changes. From dummies and whistles in the beginning, I’ve seen shoes in Spain – still don’t know what that’s about –, there’s been that hideous thing going on with making a heart with your fingers.. Thankfully I’ve got away from that now. You’re writing for a French magazine right? I’ll say this: the French are very, very appreciative right now. They really seem to put heart and soul into it. It’s different everywhere, but I just do what I do, and I have total belief in the whole thing. In fact if things are hard or challenging, I just believe in it even more – it gives it more bite!