The Great Live Music Roundtable: six producers debate the future of live electronic music
From caves to churches, from garages to stadiums, live music is something we humans have always partaken in.
When the recording industry as we know it today was birthed in the late 19th century, recordings remained tied to their live counterpart. They were a reproduction of live music, capturing the moment so that it could be enjoyed again.
Sometime around the middle of the 20th century, however, things began to change. The increasing speed of technological innovation led recorded music to become about more than simple reproduction. Visionary artists and producers started using the studio as an instrument, giving us albums that could never be replicated in a live context and laying the foundations for the concept of the producer as we know it today. Live music continued to prosper, of course, offering a powerful, shared experience that could still be captured for posterity, though, thankfully, never replaced.
Today, live music has come to mean different things to different people. Perhaps the most common shared understanding of the term is still a band or artist performing live in front of an audience, warts and all. To some, it’s a visual and auditory extravaganza that has less to do with musical performance and more with participation and presence. To others, it’s the quest for something new, different and exciting.
The growth of technology in the past thirty years alone has radically changed the landscape of music, live and recorded. It’s given us new genres, new ideas, new possibilities and new performances. Today, the idea of live electronic music is no longer alien to most people – in fact, I’d argue it’s become bundled into this shared understanding of what live music is. And yet the electronic musician, or producer, or whatever you want to call him or her, is a new breed, unlike any of its musical ancestors. By applying the same concepts and ideas of live music to this new breed of creators, we inevitably create problems. Is the person on stage with their laptop checking their emails, or actually doing something to the sounds I’m hearing? It’s an extreme example, but it paints a realistic picture.
Clubs today are as likely to feature a DJ as they are someone performing live, sans band or instruments, while music festivals feature an increasingly split line-up of traditional and modern live set-ups. The number of aspiring producers and performers is increasing as fast as the speed of our internet connection. But what is live electronic music? What does it entail and how does it differ from what came before it?
The only way to really answer these questions is to talk about it. To that end, we brought together six electronic artists to discuss the subject. They are all modern musicians with different backgrounds, techniques and approaches to live and recorded music. From England, experimental electronics veteran and sound designer Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner; from France, beat scene staple Xavier Thomas, better known as debruit; from Germany, producer and tech-head Boris ‘Comfort Fit‘ Mezga; and, from New York City, live cello/sax/electronics trio Archie Pelago.
While their music and live shows differ (note: you can see details of their full live set-ups at the end of this article), they all have one key thing in common: a desire to take music made on computers to the stage in a way that can engage the crowd and grow our collective understanding of what live electronic music is and can be.
The following hour-long discussion is by no means a definite statement on the subject, but rather an attempt to continue and foster a dialogue between artists, critics and the public about live music in the 21st century – its roots, its limitations, and its possibilities.
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I thought a good place to start was with everyone’s definition of a live electronic show.
Scanner: It’s an easy question with a long answer. For me there’s a clear difference between what we’d call recorded music and performed music. I’ve been performing now and recording music professionally for twenty years, and it’s developed a lot for me. The discussion we’re going to have here is largely about music that’s never been out of a computer, that’s made inside computer systems, so it’s about ways of expressing something that happens elsewhere. So I see it as a type of theatre. An ever-developing type of theatre.
Archie Dan: For me, live electronic music is about feeling. Say there’s an element of live tactile action happening on stage, whatever that is. And maybe a certain element of risk – a potential that’s a bit like a high wire act.
debruit: I would agree with those things. You have to be able to make mistakes to have a feeling of live-ness. And it’s also presenting some sort of difference between your music in a live format as opposed to a recorded format to people that might already know your work.
Archie Zach: I think that what people like about live music, myself included, is to witness something for the first time. I think that live music is really a spontaneous burst of very interesting interaction between the audience and the performer, a very nice conversation.
Based on your experience do you guys feel that there is perhaps an issue at the moment with what live electronic music is perceived to be in our modern, current context?
Archie Dan: I think that it exists in small pockets all over the world right now. We’re here in Brooklyn and there are other people doing live electronic music that isn’t exactly like what we are all doing. Yet it’s sort of the same, it’s in a similar vein. People are doing it independently, rising from different scenes and different regions so it’s kinda unique wherever it pops up
Have any of you ever had issues, talking to audiences afterwards perhaps, where people came to see one thing and got something else they didn’t expect or want?
debruit: I think there are still a lot of people who come to the shows thinking you’re a DJ. With my music, which has strange grooves, they think I don’t mix really well but I’m actually playing live. For example, I like to make noise when I play live, and people don’t expect that from a DJ, which is what they think I am. And yet there are no turntables. But when you explain it most people get it. Not everyone in the world should know what live electronic music is but what is true is that when they hear it they should understand that it’s different by the way it sounds.
Scanner: I think those who are most confused are those who book the shows, in my experience. In my career, I’ve never been called DJ Scanner in any press release, any websites, and yet the times I’ve showed up to a theatre or venue and it says DJ Scanner and I just want to scream! The classic example was about 15 years ago, a peak of sorts, when promoters were narrow-minded and confused. I had a contract that said ‘this is Scanner live’ and I turned up in Poland and there was a banner across the street from the festival and it said ‘Scannerlive’ as one word. This is where it really goes wrong. It’s a huge subject though. There are big artists like Beyonce and Lady Gaga who are essentially singing to backing tracks but the audience sees a performer on stage so you have a different scenario. There’s a bigger issue here which is that tactile, kinetic aspect. But it is very, very tricky for people to really understand what is happening.
Archie Zach: For us, people see the instruments and understand we’re also using computers, but the connecting aspect can be lost in translation. And that’s cool, it depends. Sometimes people in the audience will really geek out and perhaps come behind us to see what’s happening, and some people will just watch and listen. Or those at the back might not even know it’s a live band, some people just walk into a venue and hear the music with no idea about it, it’s a completely new aural experience for them.
Archie Greg: I think we’ve experienced different sorts of crowd interaction. We’ve had crowds that see us and just go with the feel of the sound, dancing and vibing to it. Then there are those interested in the technical side, in the instrumental techniques that we’re using. And there are people interested in us interacting with one another, sort of the band, inter-musical aspect of the show. So it’s a number of different levels that audiences seem to be able to engage with what we do.
Actually picking up on the DJ thing – would you guys consider DJing to be a valid inclusion in a broad definition of live electronic music or would you consider it a separate thing?
Archie Zach: I would consider it a performance, because when you see a really great DJ playing, you see him working. An example that comes to mind is seeing Robert Hood play with two CDJs and two decks for four hours. He’s sweating and you can tell he’s working the entire time. So, to me, I identify with that being an instrumental performance for sure. I would definitely include DJing in the live performance arts.
Archie Greg: It’s a bit of a stretch, but if you watch a good cook make food, he’s giving a performance. A performance is perhaps anyone working hard in front of a crowd, just to look at it from a different angle.
Scanner: I think it’s important that if there’s someone there to witness it, then it’s a performance. As long as there’s some kind of audience, whether it’s two people watching a cook or a DJ or whether it’s 20,000, for me that’s when it becomes performative.
Archie Dan: I agree with that.
[Comfort Fit joins the conversation.] We were just discussing everyone’s definition of what a live electronic music performance is, if you want to add yours?
Comfort Fit: For me, it’s all about action and reaction. If I don’t see any reaction to the action taking place on stage, I don’t perceive it as a live performance. You can have this action/reaction happening with a modular synth where you’re tweaking parameters and perhaps playing sequences or with real time triggering tied to a computer which you play live, be it drums or something else. I think it all comes down to this idea of action/reaction ultimately – if that’s not there I don’t see any live performance going on. So just Ableton and pressing play for me doesn’t necessarily equate live, but that’s just me.
What do you think are the best ways to help audiences understand what it is you’re doing on stage?
Comfort Fit: Two or three years ago, I started directing my drum controllers towards the audience rather than keeping them facing me, so they could see what is happening. That was actually bringing more people to the club, creating a better feedback and reception with the audience. So I think it really helps if people can see what is happening, if there’s some connection. If you stop playing, the music stops playing.
Scanner: It’s also interesting to think about the environment you play in. How it lends a different approach to this. For example, we’re talking about clubs here, but I also equally play in theatres and seated venues. Some years ago, I saw Stockhausen present his work in London. There was no performative element whatsoever. Basically, it was a legendary figure walking onto the stage in a very comfortable looking pullover, introducing the work, and then walking to the back of the auditorium and pressing play on a taped piece. We all sat there facing an empty stage with the sound dispersing around us. The piece would finish, everyone clapped, he’d walk back on stage, in the same lovely pullover, and introduce the next piece. This went on for about 2 hours, with maybe 40 minutes of music, but in retrospect I realise now that what made it engaging was that there was no concern that what we were listening to were taped pieces and that we didn’t know the origins of the sound or really know what was happening. But he introduced the pieces, there was a context, there was human interaction. And for myself, when I play shows and talk to the audience at some point, build a bond in that way, I think it can build some emotive relationship. That’s really invaluable.
Comfort Fit: That’s very true. Talking to people is important.
Archie Greg: I once did a gig with a singer/songwriter where I played cello. His songs were OK, but in between the songs, the banter… I’ve never seen someone play his audience as well as this guy. I’ve seen some great audience banter over the years but this guy was like a virtuoso at simply playing the audience, engaging them, telling jokes, the timing, the way he would segue into his songs. I was just blown away at how well he was able to work his crowd simply by talking to them.
debruit: I’ve also seen it where people are talking to the audience because they’re not actually playing live. I’ve seen that a lot, it’s all they have, almost.
Scanner: Sort of like a puppet show. I might do that for my next show, aim it at schools and kids, it’ll be a lot more rewarding.
Well, this raises an interesting question. You’ve all agreed that as long as there’s some form of interaction with the crowd it constitutes a live show or a performance. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that a lot of American artists seem to be much more aware of the importance of engaging the audience by talking, especially when you’re using tools that aren’t necessarily familiar to the crowd – and that can be as simple as introducing yourself at the start and thanking them at the end. Would you agree that there’s something key there too in terms of establishing a human bond, even a simple one? That’s something traditional live bands tend to do.
Archie Dan: I think with Archie we keep that pretty limited in terms of banter, talking. We’ll just normally thank people at the end of the set, but I still feel very engaged with the audience just from having this DJ experience of looking over the crowd, making eye contact with people. And we also engage with each other when we perform, and I think we can in turn tell when people are engaged with us. At the end we’ll thank them and introduce ourselves – other than that, we tend to let the music do the talking.
Archie Zach: I feel like a big part of the audience engagement for us has to do with the way they perceive our own conversation, our internal conversation. I think people will automatically become engaged or interested in what’s going on if they look around and see us playing off each other, laughing, having a fun time on stage.
Archie Greg: Sweating or having worried looks on our faces. Eyeing each other intently. It’s the whole range of experiences on stage going on. I think it works for us
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What about for you guys who perform solo?
Scanner: I was just thinking that, I get a bit lonely! If I started talking to myself on stage, I’d actually have someone take me to the side and ask if I was OK. I’ve always looked for ways to be truthful, and perhaps becoming invisible in a sense. I’ve achieved this recently and I’ve done it before too. The first attempt was back in 1999. It was the first, and probably last, time I released a record and toured, this routine of making a product and touring it. I played a few shows and thought that it really didn’t interest me – I don’t mean it arrogantly, just in a dispiriting way. So I basically got lookalikes to play the shows for me. 16 shows, one night, May 16 1999. And, perversely, the NME reviewed one of the shows, which I thought was fantastic because I was at home decorating having just moved.
So I was always looking for ways to see how far you can take this, and I’ve just recently started working with an orchestra. The great thing about that is there are thirty musicians on stage – there’s a live band with me, drums and everything, so nobody even begins to question the guy in the middle sitting with a laptop in front of him. And this is despite the fact that I’m operating as the engine of the piece, pushing it all forward, and I wrote most of the music to begin with. So I’m always looking for methods where I can become invisible, because I’ve found these questions so problematic over the years, this whole role of performance. This is a key subject for me, something I think about all the time.
What about you, Xavier? Because you’ve also worked with a band as well as solo.
debruit: Yeah, the band was an attempt to push this idea of live electronic music further. To go back to the DJ and live idea, for me I think it should be a very defined area. I love to see good DJs play and it’s for me a different discipline. For people to understand live electronic music, it should be when you present something that is from you and that you can interact with on different levels. It should be your productions too, your music. I don’t know if it’s just the scene or world I move in, but I see so many people playing live who are using other people’s tracks, and I think it confuses the audience a little. Unless we’re talking cover versions, as far as I know you can’t interact with the audience based off someone else’s track. It changes this idea of interaction. To go back to the band, it was just a way to express live electronic music differently: synths, electronic guitars controlling synths, and of course lots of laptops on stage. It sounded very electronic…
Boris, when you mentioned moving your controllers towards the crowd, was that as a way to create this connection with them?
Comfort Fit: Actually no, it was more ergonomic! Playing for such a long time, if I look at my hands it’s much better to have the controllers directed that way. But it turned out to create this new connection with the audience as well. What I have is loading breaks between the tracks. And, out of necessity, I started with the whole hosting thing, and I realised that if you manage to put a bit of humour into the show this will open people really quickly. So humour is key to opening up people’s perceptions and minds to some extent. At first, it felt really strange to dialogue with the audience, but after a few years I feel very happy with it. And if I had to get rid of it, I don’t think I could perform live. It’s become a really important element of my show: making jokes, talking about music. People want to see the person behind the music as well and not only listen to the music. I think that’s one way to do it.
Picking up on Robin’s mention of touring recorded material and how that wasn’t necessarily interesting: I recently spoke with Clark about his live shows, and this idea came up of the balance between recorded music – music that people can recognise and that in a live setting is perhaps “as is”, only affected or changed in subtle ways – versus truly live moments where improvisation takes over and everything is new, everything is of the moment. You all make music that is born of the studio, and so I wondered where you stand on that divide between recorded music and improvisation?
Archie Dan: I think we’re fortunate to have means to recreate our pieces in a live setting. We have a process where we’ll take a studio track and dub it out or change the form in order to fit explorations with saxophone and cello over it. We also have Dan interacting with Push and different effects. So you can play songs that people sort of know, recognise, but they’re always going to sound different. So for us there’s a lot of chance and improvisation happening within some elements of an original recorded piece.
Scanner: For myself, the wonderful thing about electronic music has always been that, because it’s created on computers, it’s wonderfully elastic in a way. As we’ve been saying, we can open out the works. I’m fortunate to have had a career where I’ve released a lot of material and made a lot of material, but most people never come to my shows to hear it. So I can actually play shows of entirely new music and not have a disappointed audience. For myself, I like to take risks – I bring I lot of sound, and I sometimes have an idea of a structure, how I want it to go, but actually it can frequently change. The classic example is a show I did in Switzerland where I was led to believe that this was a dance party – and when I walked in it was all elderly ladies seated in a hall. This was before Ableton Live was around, I was using an Akai sampler, so I just switched all the drum patterns and played a semi trance set to elderly ladies in Switzerland. I was glad for this elasticity at that moment.
Comfort Fit: Over the years, I’ve developed a whole other body of work for the live shows. It’s all different to what I release on albums. So, at the moment, I have an exclusive list of tracks I can play live, and it’s totally different to my recorded output. And I don’t know if I really want to release any of those tracks at any point. They were made and composed with the idea of live in mind and I don’t know if they would work on record. And I see this development happening with a lot of people. I saw Four Tet here at ADE on the first day, and his live set seemed to really differ from what is on his albums. So it’s something I see in many different parts of the electronic world at the moment. Artists developing two different kinds of repertoire – one for live and one for recorded music, albums.
debruit: I agree completely. I have tracks in my live set that are there to allow me to be flexible. So, depending on the situation, I can go into faster bpms or slow things down. I can use these or not depending on the situation and I do sometimes have people asking for these tracks, yet I don’t necessarily plan on ever releasing them. It’s a funny thing, they keep coming to me and my performances also don’t aim to sound like the records I make. You can twist things radically or put a totally different vibe on a track by changing the bpm, pushing it into a different genre almost, live in front of the audience. Sometimes you never even think about it, it just happens as you’re playing.
I really like this idea of different repertoires. And it seems to me to echo the DJ tradition of dubplates, where you had to go and see a certain DJ play to hear tracks that were not available anywhere else.
Comfort Fit: Yes totally! And it adds value too. People are paid more than a regular DJ say, so in that sense a unique repertoire adds value.
Archie Greg: One thing I’ll add in terms of Archie’s live approach is that in the past year we’ve experienced a shift in our tools. We acquired Ableton Push which allows Dan to step up live beat programming. I think the bottom line for us is that it’s a slow, steady and careful evolution of our approach, where the end result is more control for everyone or opportunities to be flexible using a very efficient amount of stuff. It’s maybe one controller per person, streamlining it but getting more granular too. And not doing it all at once. The evolution of our toolbox, the slow evolution of it, has been a running theme for us.
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This touches on a recurring idea I see pop up a lot. With the wealth of tools available today to make music, it still boils down to what you’re comfortable with. In that regard, do you find that it’s important to find what works for you and master it, as opposed to being preoccupied with the possibilities available as technology evolves?
Scanner: Well, actually, I’m always looking for new tools, if I’m honest. I have a desire to do it. I went through a period of buying controllers to see what would appeal to me, what would give me access to new ways of playing. I had a long chat with Chris Carter of Throbbing Gristle last night, and he has the most massive collection of home-built synthesizers and all kinds of stuff. We were getting really excited about new possibilities. He was telling me about a new software company coming out of the US who doesn’t have anything out yet aside from three controllers and we were like kids in a candy shop, thinking about how those tools can liberate you in terms of performance and opening up the process. The most important thing for me is that I have to enjoy it. I like the element of risk but there has to be an element of pleasure there. I like to think of myself as a tightrope walker without the net beneath me. And I’m not aiming to break my neck or injure my foot but I like the edge to it. To me, that’s where performance really works no matter what tools I’m using or what work I’m presenting. To me there has to be that edge to it where it could just fall over at any moment.
Comfort Fit: I also love the fact that mistakes happen. Mistakes in the sound show we’re still human. If I play a beat with two hands and make a mistake, people recognise I’m just a human and I can still make mistakes even in a club environment. To me, it’s normal and it also adds another way to connect with people. As for the technical side of things it’s a huge adventure. I think we all have the same history of trying to figure out the perfect system to control things live on stage. And I don’t think there’s a final answer for it, it’ll just continue to develop and with things like Push or Maschine we’re going in the right direction. It’s more about the haptic feedback of the gear and equipment, not looking at the screen constantly. So we are moving in the right direction, and I’m personally excited to see what will come out in the next few years.
debruit: For me, I’d say I’m always looking for new ways to play, and that’s why I started the band project. We found this electronic guitar, which was a toy for Playstation or something, and we managed to play it like a normal guitar, without much velocity. It’s an example of how we’re always looking at ways to transfer guitar sounds to MIDI to present something that sounds very electronic but is played with instruments. Sometimes the frustration for me is also that I have levels of ambition that don’t match my notoriety, if you will. So, I can’t bring everything I want to the stage because either the promoter won’t want to paym or when you give them the tech breakdown they freak out. They might want a big live performance, but they’re also giving you limits within which to do it. For me, anyways. And that’s annoying because I want to present something ambitious and I’m told I can’t basically. It’s a shame.
Boris, could you tell everyone this idea you put to me a few weeks ago about why pads can be thought of as a legitimate instrument? I think it’s an interesting idea.
Comfort Fit: Well, to cut a long story short, I’ve played drums and piano in the past but never really managed to get into them as instruments. Something like the piano has a sound associated to it that means you can’t necessarily swap that sound, say for drums, without it sounding and looking strange to people. The same for drums. If I play a drum kit, people expect drum sounds, not chords or melodies which I may want to have instead. Traditional instruments fail a little when you want to translate all the electronic sound design to the stage. So, when I started getting controllers, especially when the Akai MPDs came out for the first time, I began to realise that this matrix of 4×4 pads most controllers have might actually be the best way to play any kind of sound without looking strange at the same time. Another thing that is a parameter to understand whether this is then an instrument or not is the ability to play it blind. If you see a pianist, a trained professional, you can see they don’t use their eyes anymore, they use muscle memory to perform. And so I feel that the 4×4 pad matrix has that potential, that it’s the same thing. After a few years of practicing, figuring out finger mapping and functions for my fingers, I’m able to play this thing blind. And that’s where for me it becomes an instrument, an extension of yourself instead of being a controller you have to watch.
Archie Zach: Even though I play a saxophone, the same idea applies. What you see your instrument as should be an extension of your own thoughts, your own mental patterns. I feel like a big part of my instruction and practice over the years has really been understanding that it is me controlling the instrument not the other way around. You have control of it. Whether it’s having your eyes closed or not looking at your hands if you’re a guitar player, stuff like that is a big part of owning your output and having full control of whatever your instrument is, whether it’s a MIDI controller or a drum, saxophone etc…
Xavier, you play with the screen down.
debruit: Yeah, I do have the laptop closed now and that was a big evolution. The way controllers have evolved… When I lived in Glasgow ,I used to help run a night and a lot of electronic musicians would play. We found it fine that they were just behind their laptop screens because back then there weren’t many options available to you, especially when your music was primarily digital and not analogue. We experienced different scenarios. People were just behind laptops, but sometimes you could hear it was live, you could tell there was interaction with the sound, even if you didn’t know what the person was doing. Ultimately, the most important thing is the music, what comes out of the speakers. And so today, my own effort to remember all my patterns so I can play the way I do is actually weird. I never thought I’d be able to do that. I’ve memorised all the light patterns on my controller, the APC 40. I never intended to in a way, but through the process of rehearsing I know which track is playing by looking at the amount of squares that are orange or green, and it’s a strange experience. It happened without any intention on my part, but it’s true that now I don’t have a screen between myself and the audience. And perhaps the screen was a barrier. I think we should also remember that demonstration isn’t all, the sound is still important. Even if you don’t see the person playing, you should be able to hear their involvement in the music and how it sounds in a live context.
Scanner: The point just made there about the barrier I think is really important. I found that even a table on stage with a nice cloth on it can be a block. I often ask to not have it because it feels like yet another barrier between you and the audience.
[General agreement from everyone]
Scanner: I’ve got a classic photo worth sharing one day, where I’m performing with another artist many years ago and he made the mistake of wearing shorts. And so it looks like he’s completely naked because he also had a flesh coloured tee shirt on. It’s an amazingly ridiculous photo. But to go back to the point, these aspects that seem trivial, and I’m being playful here, are really important for people to understand what is going on. I think this idea of blocking is important for people to understand. Laptops are equally bad for that. My worst notion of people using laptops in performances is a person, usually a man, seated, with a beard, a beer on one side, leaning on his hand and staring into the screen as if he’s immersed in his own world. And I think, “How can you still do this?’” It looks so selfish. The idea of barriers is really important. So we touched on the importance of speaking, but the screen in itself acts as a barrier. An audience perhaps only sees the top of someone’s head. Now, if you go to a rock gig, you may still only see the top of someone’s head, but you know they’re playing an instrument, be it a guitar, drums or whatever. The relationship is clearer in that traditional format, so you have to do everything you can to maintain this body relationship with an audience. Often times, what I’ve done is walk out besides the table if it’s in the way. Not to jump in the air and wave at the audience, but just to exhibit that I do have legs and can move and I’m not simply a robot.
It’s a stupid idea, but it just came into my head as you spoke. Perhaps one solution to the screen barrier is broadcasting its content onto a giant monitor behind the performer.
Archie Zach: We have done that before. We’ve given masterclasses in the past, at universities or places that teach electronic music, and they’ll do that. Hook up the laptops to a projector so people can see what we’re doing. It’s definitely an idea, and it adds another visual element to a live performance. It’s more fitting in some situations than others obviously.
Archie Dan: I mean, if there’s a crowd who doesn’t know how the software works and they just see the screen it might look like an evolving abstract computer design of some sort. To the layman it’ll probably look cool but it also might make them think that there’s a logic there even if they can’t parse it.
debruit: It might distract from listening too.
Do you guys think there are any links between what you do as modern musicians, modern live electronic musicians for lack of a better term, and Western traditions, the more classic understanding of music? We’ve touched on rock and bands, but I’m also thinking about jazz here. I think there’s a valid argument for electronic music and jazz perhaps being put into a similar family in terms of breaking away from the traditions and challenging them. How do you think about how your work operates in relation to existing musical traditions?
Archie Greg: I feel like there’s a direct line. Based on who we studied with, where we grew up, what we listened to growing up, why we got into what we did and how we perform, I feel like it’s in us. There’s a jazz tutelage in our backgrounds and we apply that to what we do now. I feel like it’s direct.
Comfort Fit: I think that any new musical genre is generated by an abuse of traditional tools or instruments. Jazz music has come into existence because Afro-Americans started playing their music on traditional western instruments. Rock music partly developed from overdriving a traditional guitar amp. The special thing with electronic instruments, especially samplers, is that any source of sound can now be abused and tweaked in so many ways that it necessarily creates a genre meltdown. I’m really looking forward to the point where it all becomes one huge hybrid instead of thousands of fragmented genres.
Archie Zach: For me, coming from a jazz background, playing quartets, orchestras, I definitely feel a link with what we do as Archie. It’s that ability to have a solo voice, but also at times interacting and complimenting other sounds that are happening. For what we do, there is a definite lineage from jazz. But, for me, a big part of the enjoyment of jazz music is group interaction. There are jazz solo performances of course, but for me what I really like with live jazz is being able to see a group working together. It’s almost as if improvisation-wise it creates a mechanism, a forward motion mechanism and it’s fascinating. And I like to think that we’re able to create that same feeling with our live shows.
Archie Dan: For me it’s funny. I’m the DJ in the group, and so what I do might be more vague compared to two guys next to me with instruments, clear intentions, but I also play trumpet and have a classical background. It’s just that I found a different route, found DJing and fell in love. At the time we met, I wanted to be in an ensemble again but as a DJ, so figuring out and evolving our set-up has been a ride, but it’s the best part. Interacting with the music and my partners and that drives everything forward, as Zach said.
debruit: This reminds me of a story. My grandfather, who is 85, once came to one of my shows. He’s a former musician. About jazz and interaction, I play solo but I try to have this element of interaction between the drums, bass, samples and melodies. And he understood that straight away. He reviewed the performance for me afterwards, he’d stood on the side of the stage watching me. He told me that he’d understood that I was playing all the instruments, that I could change the tones of them and other things as and when I wanted. And that was really the core of his review: coming from a traditional musical background of bands, he’d understood what was happening despite not knowing anything about electronic music. And so I think there’s something there, you know.
Scanner: I don’t think I’ve ever had someone come to a show and then tell me they hadn’t understood it. No matter how strange the things many of us have done, they definitely have roots in a larger musical tradition. Music always has the same name, ultimately. People say they like music, and I think in that sense music is a beautiful art medium, it’s a shared thing. It works because there’s an audience. We read books and we watch films, yet those are one-on-one relationships, whereas music is fantastic because it’s performative and it speaks to an audience. For me, it’s something that’s still really important, because no matter how strange and unusual some things I may do are, it still comes from this traditional root. And often I collaborate with more traditional musicians on a stage or in recordings. So someone is playing an instrument, whatever it may be. I always remain optimistic and, if it moves them and engages them, I don’t think people begin to question too much. I’m hoping we might have passed that point now where people see someone on stage and go, “What on earth is going on there!?”
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There is a question we touched on briefly but it might be a good way to close this. It’s about the idea of evolving the language we use to talk about live electronic music, and, more broadly, electronic music in general. Do you feel that’s something that needs to be explicitly addressed? Or is it more important to continue the work you’ve been doing – proving by showing, and changing the language that way?
Archie Zach: I think it’s important to talk about it and evolve that side, because it’s really easy for people to confuse our studio work and our live work. Not in terms of musical output, but in terms of how things are done. So for us it’s been helpful to talk about our live set and how we interact there versus how we record music in the studio, because it’s a very different experience for us. The live Archie set versus listening back to our songs. It’s more immersive and improvisational, so for us showing is important, but at the same time I feel like the more we have these kinds of discussions, the more it clears things up little-by-little for the audience.
Archie Dan: I think it’s one thing for us to explain how we do things live and break that down as we’ve done. But as a consumer of electronic music, I also would like some clarification, because sometimes I feel disappointed if someone is billed as live but they’re not pushing their set-up and simply doing an Ableton DJ set. It’s pegged as live, but it’s not really interactive and it can be disappointing. I’m not knocking those who do that, it’s all down to choice, but as a consumer I want to be challenged more, personally.
Archie Greg: As an audience member, I think it’s important to understand what you’re getting. If you’re paying money to see a show and you think you’re getting one thing but you’re really getting another,it creates sour feelings. I think the more people are clear and up front the better it will be, for the consumer.
Scanner: It’s true. Take Autechre. They tend to discard the human element. They perform in a large black industrial space, you pretty much see nothing so it’s all about the ears, no visualisation at all. And if you manage to squeeze up front with all the fan boys, you’ll see two fellas hunched over their laptops noodling away. And that’s a rare example where someone is still able to get away with that. For me, it’s a very natural progression. I still think of it as a type of theatre. And I think when you go to the theatre you’d be disappointed if you walked in and there’s two or three people on stage reading out of a book. You’ve paid good money for it, and these people didn’t even bother to rehearse it, there’s no lighting or costumes. And it’s the same for us. There can be elements of creative lighting, visualisation, whether it’s through someone VJing or what you do on stage. It can be in the way you dress, or you have a set or graphics for the show. All these aspects take you one step closer to an audience. Theatre can’t get away with it, and sometimes I wonder if we should. I’m not saying any of us do, but it’s an important element to consider. This discussion is also valuable in that sense in terms of opening this up because it’s rarely spoken about in a very open forum like this.
Archie Greg: I’m also curious to hear about what the audience expectations are for shows like this. I’d be curious to hear from a sample of people who go to shows, live electronic shows, and ask them: “What do you expect? Do you expect an epic show, a powerful sound system, or do you expect what we’re kinda saying, which is what makes a great live show?” What does the audience today really look for in a live electronic show?
Well, hopefully putting this out in a live forum will help generate some discussion like this.
Scanner: We have to wait for all the hate mail.
I turn the comments off these days, but they remain one of the few places you can get this kind of feedback. Perhaps the best way to close this is with a question aimed at fellow practitioners, as I’m sure there’ll be a few of them reading this as well as those aspiring to become live electronic musicians. What would be your advice for people looking to take up live music in an electronic context? What would you recommend people do or start to think about?
Scanner: I think it’s invaluable to remember that there’s an audience and that you have a responsibility, but take risks, don’t simply try to recreate something you already made in a studio. People understand that this is a live event and are looking for both familiarity and excitement. Experiment with possibilities because even through failure you can learn even more. For me it’s essential to maintain a bond with an audience, be it through the music alone or by interacting with the public through spoken word and enjoy yourself. That’s absolutely key, you must find a joy in this adventure.
debruit: Well, my advice to those people, even those already making electronic music and perhaps performing regularly, is to make the effort. I know it’s a pain to bounce files and do all of what comes with it, and you’ll still get your money even if you’re not playing live, but it’s not worth it. I think it’s worse when people take the piss. I understand why people out there, especially those with a big name already, might not feel the need to put together a live show, because they’ll get booked anyway and they will still show people their music. I feel it’s perhaps a little too lazy and not respectful to the audience. If you say you’re playing live you should make the effort to deserve that tag next to your name on the bill, basically.
Comfort Fit: The way from a studio producer to a live-performer is like a metamorphosis. It won’t happen overnight, because your whole mindset has to change first. Don’t expect your studio productions to work on stage and vice versa.
Archie Dan: My advice would be to embrace collaboration. It’s obvious in terms of what we do as a trio, but in general I just feel like if you find the right complimentary people, it always helps to get ideas out in a more sensible way, and a better, more efficient way. It’s something I’ve always experienced throughout my learning process, be it bands or something else. Find people who compliment your talents and want to work hard and are committed. It’s a good starting point.
Archie Greg: Questioning your boundaries and yourself and looking to models you respect. Maybe even outside the realm of electronic music, just look towards interesting people doing amazing things that inspire people. And emulate that, think about how to be able to rise to that level. Within and without live electronic music, I think that’s what has kept me going.
Archie Zach: For me, it’s important for people to put work in, practice. Practicing not only has a pay off for you internally in allowing you to see successions and improvements, but also in continuously challenging yourself, that’s a big part of it. Just to keep learning, keep an open mind.
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1 cello, nanoKONTROLs, NanoPAD, 2 x Behringer FCB1010, 1 saxophone, Serato, Behringer DJX750 mixer, 2 turntables, 3 laptops running Ableton, Serato and Bridge. (an image of their set-up from a few years ago is above – further developments like Push are discussed in the article)
Laptop running Ableton and APC 40 controller for solo performances. Live band set up includes multiple laptops, drums, saxophone, thumb pianos, talkbox, guitar, controllers and more.
Laptop, Maschine Mk2, Maschine Mikro, Traktor Kontrol F1, Smartphone with sampler app, Shure SM58.
Laptop running Ableton, Novation Launchpad, Akai keyboard, Alesis AirFX and AirSynth, Korg ES1 sampler, Pioneer DJM-800, 2 x CDJs, microphone
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