Mike Paradinas isn’t quite a household name. But as far as his impact on the electronic music world goes he is the equal of almost any other DJ or producer you’d care to mention.
As a teenager in the early 90s, operating under the µ-Ziq alias, Paradinas joined the likes of Autechre and the Aphex Twin in pioneering the leftfield takes on techno, UK hardcore and jungle that would come to be called IDM. Across two LPs for the Rephlex label, Paradinas’ productions put a distinctive spin on the burgeoning form, their busy arrangements and bold, often warm melodics establishing a yin to the icy yang of Autechre’s Amber.
Later in the decade, after a brief dalliance with Virgin records (challenging electronic music was hot dollar back then), Paradinas launched his own imprint, Planet Mu. Initially serving as an outlet for the IDM scene and its offspring, the label has since undergone a series of radical overhauls, consistently wrong-footing its detractors and cementing its position at the forefront of all things electronic. In the mid-2000s the label served as an essential platform for dubstep’s launch into the mainstream; in recent years it has become renowned for championing Chicago footwork, helping to plant a previously obscure music firmly in the global musical consciousness.
Paradinas’ own music-making appeared to falter in the noughties. He hasn’t released an album of original material since 2007’s Duntisbourne Abbots Soulmate Devastation Technique, preferring, it seems, to focus on the label. This year, though, marks a change in focus. Love And Devotion is the debut album from Heterotic, a collaboration between Paradinas and his wife Lara Rix-Martin, featuring the vocals of Warp singer-songwriter Gravenhurst. It’s a strikingly accessible affair, inviting comparisons to much of the 80s-referencing pop of recent years, as well as to fellow Planet Mu artists Tropics and Rudi Zygadlo.
New µ-Ziq material is reportedly on its way too. But first Paradinas is commemorating the 20th anniversary of the alias with Somerset Avenue Tracks, a collection of previously unheard productions dating from 1992-1995, compiled by Rix-Martin and released in limited edition LP format. These tracks still sound surprisingly fresh, at points endearingly naive and at others oddly prescient (opener ‘Jewel Tea’ is dubstep avant la lettre). Though it may be two decades since Paradinas first stepped into the limelight, his presence on the electronic music scene feels as vital as it ever has. In light of this, FACT’s Angus Finlayson met up with Paradinas and Rix-Martin for a wide-ranging discussion touching on borrowed Betamaxes, Detroit purism, pseudo-footwork and the art of making music in sub-zero temperatures.
MP: “I was living in a flat – we didn’t have an attic. But they were on DATs, in a shoebox. Most of them were recorded on Betamax, which is digital, as opposed to VHS, which is analogue. My friend Frank, his dad had the Betamax, so we used to go up to his house to record them on there. Once I got a DAT machine – which was when I got the advance for [1993 debut album] Tango N’ Vectif – I went up to his house and recorded all this stuff onto DATs over a couple of days. DAT’s good quality, it lasts – they’re still working, you know.”
Are you a compulsive archiver? Do you hang onto all of your music from over the years?
MP: “I try to, yeah. I wouldn’t say it’s a compulsion. But it’s nice to – because you forget about a lot of it. Back then I was writing two or three tracks a day. A lot of it’s shit though [laughs]. [to Lara] I don’t know, is it? Sometimes the stuff I think is shit, other people think is quite good. So it’s difficult to…”
Lara, you compiled the album didn’t you?
LR: “There was about 1000 [tracks] to start with, wasn’t there? How many was it?”
MP: “There was about 1300 altogether. Then I gave you about 1000 – we went through a lot of it really quickly, like if you didn’t like two seconds of it it’d be in the bin.”
I guess you’d have to, with that volume of material.
MP: “It took us ages. I had to convert them all to mp3s so we could listen to them. That took about three months, on and off.”
LR: “It’s a shame because a lot of it was all live – you had to record it all in one go – so sometimes you were like, ‘I really like this part of the song, but then it goes a bit off…’”
MP: “Yeah that was because, with the Atari, if you saved it and went back to it the next day the reliability of the floppy disks was such that you couldn’t guarantee that it would save properly. So it was always best to strike while the inspiration was there and get it down. And sometimes the drums would be too loud, or if you were playing bits live they’d be shit.”
So, to talk about that early period. How did you get into club music? What sort of age were you at this time – were you old enough to be going out?
MP: “Yeah, yeah. Well, what influenced me, I think, and getting into club music, were different things. I started going to clubs when I was 16, for what they called rare groove then, which is soul, James Brown – but all the B-sides, basically. There was a club in Brixton called the Mambo Inn, and I went there three or four times. That was my first clubbing experience. There were people doing amazing dance moves and I was shit at dancing, so that was quite impressive. That was the first sort of music I was into really, and I took a lot of inspiration from that I think.
“I first heard acid house through tapes you could buy in Camden market. I got this tape – this yellow cassette, photocopied on fluorescent paper with a smiley on it – and it just sounded completely alien. So I played that to death. I remember ‘Pump Up London’ by Mr Lee was on it, but I can’t remember what else. And then I started buying a few twelve-inches, but I didn’t have a record player until later – it’d be a couple of years until I got one.”
Did you start going out to raves?
MP: “Not really, no.”
MP: “Yeah. I’d just buy cassettes. That was ’88, I would’ve been 16 or 17. But my mates weren’t into it so I didn’t really go to clubs then, not until about 1990. So I listened to the radio. John Peel, Colin Dale and Colin Faver – Colin Dale’s Abstract Dance show. And Kiss as well. I could get a bit of pirate radio where I was in Raynes Park, but not the same as if I’d been further into London.”
Then you went to university in London, too?
MP: “In Kingston, which is nearby. I did architecture and I dropped out in ’92. But it was at university that I started DJing and making a lot of music.”
Your music from that time has a strong melodic sense. Which defines a lot of music from that sort of camp, but not necessarily early 90s techno in a broader sense.
MP: “Yeah. I think the melodic sense that I’ve got came from watching 70s TV – there were a lot of synth-y theme tunes. Maybe from a bit of funk, which always had quite juicy melodies. I always struggled to do beats I think…But anyway, the stuff on Somerset Avenue was all made while I was studying architecture. At my mum’s house – where she still lives!”
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So at what point did it start to feel like there was something coherent going with you, Aphex and others?
MP: “Well Aphex went to Kingston with me – he was at a different campus, he was doing electronics. When Rephlex found out about him, and he released his first thing, I knew a few people who knew him. I got a demo tape to him via a friend, and he rang me up and said, ‘Yeah I really like it, let’s do something’. By then I’d done loads more tracks – three a day. The Rephlex thing [Tango N’ Vectif] got cut in March ‘93 I think, but didn’t come out ’til the end of the year.
At what point did this tag IDM start getting applied to the music you were making?
MP: “I think about ’96, ’97.”
Ah right, so a lot later.
MP: “Yeah, that was an American thing. We just called it techno – it was just British techno to us. While I was at Kingston we had a clubnight, so on Thursday nights I’d DJ there. That was when I started buying a lot of records. And we were into Detroit techno, mainly. So I got a lot of melodic inspiration from Detroit techno – specifically Juan Atkins, I thought he had the funkiest basslines. And maybe the strings of Derrick May, but I always thought he was a bit too saccharine, disco-y. And I was really into Kevin Saunderson’s stuff – those three, you know. And there was all the acid stuff from Chicago. Then Carl Craig – he was a big influence because he used breakbeats and a lot of the other guys didn’t. Because he had a sampler I think, simple as that.”
So to what extent were you making music specifically to be played in clubs at this point?
MP: “I wasn’t. I wasn’t thinking, I was just making tracks, because I was excited that I had access – at the time I was going round to my friend’s house to use his computer. In between lessons I’d get the bus to his house and do it. I had to be quick because I had to finish it before his dad came home, ‘cos he didn’t want the noise of it. So yeah, it was – just quickly write a track which excited you. Also I just wasn’t good enough at writing club tunes, and I had really shit equipment – I didn’t have a compressor. I was trying to write jungle and techno but just wasn’t good enough [laughs].
“And rave music was starting to come along, so we were DJing that alongside techno and house from Detroit and Chicago. That’s when I started to go to FatCat Records. But they weren’t into the breakbeat stuff, really. There was about a year – around ’91 – when a section of the scene, FatCat records and the Detroit purist scene, Kirk DeGiorgio and people like that, really looked down on breakbeats. Stuff like Shut Up and Dance and the Prodigy. But we were DJing the Prodigy alongside Detroit, and we didn’t see any inconsistency with that. Amazing British breakbeat stuff started to come through in about ’92 – Soapbar records, Reinforced. People like me and Aphex were just trying to do a more Detroit techno-influenced version of that. What did they call it, ‘electronica’ I think, in the NME. But we were just trying to do a British version of techno really.”
In an interview with RA you referred to your output from that era as an “angry young person’s thing”. Listening back to it, do you hear a passion in it that you miss now? People often say of their teens that they experienced music in this intense way which is difficult to recapture later on in life.
MP: “Well in terms of enjoying other people’s music it was an exciting time. But then I got that excitement all over again with early dubstep, and again with footwork. So I have recaptured that excitement since. But yeah, you have different things you express at different ages. I was living at home, without a girlfriend, so there was a lot of frustration in the music probably. Depression. Teenage stuff.”
To move forward to the present day: you’ve not released all that much of your own music in recent years. But between Somerset Ave and the Heterotic record, it seems like there’s a fresh focus on your music rather than the label. Would you agree?
MP: “Yes. Well. My last album, in 2007, wasn’t really a happy album. And I’d been concentrating a lot on the label, I suppose. I started writing again in 2011 or 2010, with Lara. We hadn’t got anything to do, so I said, ‘Why don’t we write a track?’”
LR: “It was when I was at Uni, wasn’t it. I went to an agricultural university -”
MP: “- there was literally nothing to do -”
LR: “- so we started making tracks just because he was teaching me how to do it.”
MP: “And then they were actually quite good! And Lara started writing melodies and using sounds which were more 80s-ish, I thought.”
It’s interesting, the 80s sound of the Heterotic record.
LR: “Yeah, ‘cos I wasn’t there [laughs]. Growing up, my parents listened to a lot of 80s, 70s – Peter Gabriel, Fleetwood Mac. And I still love Fleetwood Mac.”
You say it defensively.
LR: “Yeah, well I think they’re kind of getting cool again now, but for a long time they weren’t cool. But they use sequencers and stuff, and there’s some nice electronics underneath it.”
MP: “And it’s classic good songwriting isn’t it, and I think you’re a fan of that. She has a very different brain to me.”
So Mike, do you think that revitalised your own approach to making music?
MP: “No, I think it’s just because I hadn’t been bothered to get Logic out for years. But teaching her made us do stuff together. And it was fun – and because it was fun, I started doing it again. I’d associated music with pain before [laughs].”
MP: “Yeah. There was something emerging at that time that we thought, ‘Oh we could fit into that’. There was Teengirl Fantasy – we went and saw them, along with Oni Ayhun, and Oneohtrix Point Never -“
LR: “- who was awful -”
MP: “- yeah he was awful. I like his records, but he was awful live. And we got the Minimal Wave Tapes record. And The Miracles Club, and Antoni Maiovvi.”
So were you conscious of trying to mould your music to fit that sound?
MP: “We weren’t trying to do that but we were aware of other people doing a similar thing. I was also feeling Organisation by OMD – that and The Human League.”
It’s interesting to see the album as part of a shift towards releasing poppier artists on Planet Mu in recent years.
MP: “Like who?”
Tropics, Rudi Zygadlo…
MP: “Well I think we’ve always done that to a certain extent, as a label. Or at least we’ve wanted to. Because I’ve always liked pop music, and always tried to make it, but never had the ability. We’ve released people like Capitol K: that was pop music I suppose, albeit not greatly successful. I don’t know if this [Heterotic] is pop music – but I guess Nick [Gravenhurst]’s vocals help. When we finished the tracks we liked them but thought they suited vocals – thought they should be made into songs, basically. But we actually had to start writing tracks with another singer because Nick was really slow. Then we tried to bring the two together but they weren’t working together. So we decided to split the album in two.”
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So there’s another album coming?
LR: “Yeah it’s done, but we don’t have a date for it yet.”
MP: “And it’s quite different. It’s dreamier.”
LR: “A bit more trip-hop.”
Can you say who the singer is?
MP: “Vezelay, who had a single on Planet Mu a couple of years ago. We’ve got eight tracks with him which we’re happy with, and a few instrumentals. It’s much more poppy, I think, in places.”
LR: “The thing is, Gravenhurst has got a very specific sound, quite folky. And the songs that he chose to sing on are a bit more downtempo. So [Love And Devotion] is a lot darker I would say. Although sometimes I think it’s how you link those songs in your mind. At the time [of writing Love And Devotion], where I was studying, I lived in the coldest house you have ever been in in your life. It was horrible. I was actually snowed in for a week.
MP: “And we couldn’t get out so we had to make tracks… with gloves on.”
LR: “Sitting there with a glass of water that had frozen… it was horrific. So I think in a lot of ways I’ve linked the album to that, being really cold and depressed [laughs].”
It would be good to talk about Planet Mu for a bit, Mike. Somerset Ave Tracks is the 300th release for the label. During that time, the perception of what kinds of music the label is involved in has changed radically. Do you struggle with people expecting the label to be something that it’s not?
MP: “I don’t let it bother me. I don’t struggle with it because I don’t meet or talk to those people in day to day life. Obviously new music is being made all the time, that is either good or interesting, so we try to release that. Music does seem to change – that’s one of the interesting things about it… it just seems too obvious to say, really. Though I know a lot of young people are rediscovering old music [at the moment], which to people like me, in my early 40s… like this chillwave thing. That was a time when nostalgia was interesting because people were doing something quite different with it. And obviously we did like some of the music that was being made – specifically that first Toro Y Moi album – but I wasn’t really into the rest.”
You released some music in that style too, right?
MP: “Well the first couple of Tropics singles we were into, but then I think the album was unsuccessful, because he refused, point blank, to release his good songs. He had quite a few good songs, but we found him quite difficult to deal with.”
How involved do you usually get with deciding on tracklists for releases?
MP: “Very involved. If an artist is good at doing it we’ll let him do it. But sometimes they’ll have no idea about what it is that makes them good, what it is to make an album successful – for themselves I mean, I’m not talking about sales or anything. Someone like Ital has got quite a lot of self-awareness about what he’s doing, as you can tell from his interviews. He’s pretty good at compiling his own things, he needs almost no looking after. But some people just aren’t set up for criticism. You have to be quite honest when you’re running a label and dealing with artists. Sometimes you’re wrong, but I hope I‘m quite perceptive about what it is that is bad about a track.”
MP: “I think most of it is spent dealing with the artists we’ve got and listening to their new stuff. I don’t spend a great deal of time looking for new people. I do try to spend some time a week listening to demos. Sometimes you find something that’s interesting, but sometimes that’s it – they’re just a bit interesting. You can usually tell with a gut feeling, I think, whether something’s really worth it.”
With footwork for example, how did you discover that? Was it something you stumbled across?
MP: “Yeah. I think Wayneandwax posted something on his blog, maybe, and I clicked a link. Then I just followed all the YouTube links from there, and there was shitloads of stuff, and it was all completely amazing in its own way. Although we got a lot of criticism from certain corners of Chicago for releasing DJ Nate. So then I suppose we had to redress the balance slightly.”
In general do the Chicago scene approve of what you’ve done with footwork?
MP: “I think they just want to make money. I mean I think they care whether they’ve been represented, individually, correctly or not, obviously. And that the scene has been represented OK. And that’s why they didn’t like what had happened about DJ Nate – self-appointed scene members were upset by it. But above that, I suppose everyone wants to be successful. I think artistically we were successful [with Footwork], but it hasn’t been the best-selling thing. Some of the artists made advances from us, and that’s been good for them. And Rashad and Spinn have been playing out a lot. I’ve always wanted Hyperdub to release some [footwork]. Because I felt like people were looking at Mu as if it was mental, releasing all this Chicago footwork. I wanted not to be alone. Though there are a lot of labels releasing pseudo-footwork – even us, even Planet Mu.”
What sort of things are you referring to?
MP: “People like Machinedrum. FaltyDL has been doing a bit of it, though I don’t think it’s been released. I think Machinedrum’s has been successful in that it wasn’t emulating footwork – he was taking a deeper sort of response to it. But there has been a lot of other things – like Krampfhaft – it’s all a bit pyrotechnic-ey. I don’t think the European and white American response, unless you’re in the [Chicago] scene, has been that successful. It’s not very grassroots is it, it’s just part of the post-dubstep scene, and so there’s not really a big reason for it to exist other than, ‘Oh I’ve been listening to a bit of this, I’m going to put it in my music’. Some of it’s more successful than others. I think the first successful track for me – apart from Machinedrum – was Mark Pritchard as Africa Hi-Tech, ‘Out In The Streets’. But then Mark’s a fucking great producer.”