“I used to do everything just on the computer,” Andy Stott tells me, from his recently-built home studio in Manchester.
Stott has been through a number of metamorphoses throughout the years, modifying his sound thoughtfully to achieve the kind of universal acclaim usually reserved for musicians beyond the underground electronic music scene. He credits his ascent to being able to think outside the box, “in every sense of that saying.”
Stott’s early productions were put together using Reason and Ableton Live, and he admits that his influences and basic production techniques were hindering his productions. In 2011, something changed; double 12″ EP Passed Me By sounded unlike anything Stott had produced before, setting a new high-water mark in his output and influencing a legion of hungry producers. Late last year, Stott tore up the rulebook once again on his third album Faith in Strangers; while his previous records had absorbed elements of house and techno and kept a keen eye on the dancefloor, this time the themes were darker and more subtle. Stott had replaced the club with a dusty New York City basement circa-1983.
I’ve known Stott for many years and witnessed many of his changes first hand, so I thought the best way to get to the bottom of his process would be to start at the very beginning. He pauses for a second, and begins to recount his musical genesis, which was hinged on listening and repeating. “We had keyboards at school,” he remembers. “One of the keyboards had a filter on it, and I was just doing chords and filtering it. I just thought ‘that’s wicked, I want to do more of this’.”
That early interest led to a keyboard of his own (for Christmas, of course) and Stott quickly became obsessed with “messing about listening to hardcore tapes and learning all these cheesy riffs and playing them back.” At the time he was having piano lessons with Alison Skidmore, who ended up lending vocals to 2012’s Luxury Problems and the later Faith in Strangers. Skidmore would tell Stott every week to bring a piece of music so the two could break it down and examine the composition. Sadly, the tracks Stott was taking to the lessons weren’t as complex as Skidmore had hoped. “She’d be saying, ‘you need to learn how to design sounds, you don’t need to learn music.’”
This was the push Stott needed to invest in a computer. “I didn’t know where else to start. As a 14 or 15 year old you wouldn’t know where to go shopping for a drum machine. I had to wait until a second-hand computer came up with Reason on it and then that was it, I was off.
I suggest that he was, in essence, learning in public, and he agrees. “It’s just there innit, it’s in the open. But yeah, up until Passed Me By I think it was sort of a lesson to myself in designing sounds and what I was influenced by early on, like the Detroit and the Chicago stuff.”
The ghosts of Detroit and Chicago are easy to identify on Stott’s 2005 debut EP Ceramics and later album Merciless, which made the jump to the irreverent, influential Passed Me By even more stark. “I felt like it was more me,” Stott reveals. “I wasn’t replicating. I used to refuse to sample. I just used to try and build everything myself, I’d try and engineer each sound. With Passed Me By and We Stay Together I just started messing about with stuff, sampling.” This wasn’t just a case of digging through dusty 12″s for unheard breaks though – Stott actually became fascinated by the possibilities of almost every sound around him. It’s well-known that he worked in a Mercedes garage (the title of his debut EP Ceramics refers to engine parts, not plates), and began paying attention to the noise that surrounded him every day. “I’d be stood next to someone welding with my phone out recording, they’re like ‘what you fuckin’ doing? Move!’”
Those industrial elements became part and parcel of a sound which was tagged “knackered house.” Stott lovingly refers to it as “that dreaded grind”, and it fits – the gloomier qualities were quick to be picked up by his peers. This was something he was aware of while sketching out the popular Luxury Problems full-length – he knew that he needed to offset that ugliness with something more traditionally beautiful. He’d recently been introduced to Arthur Russell’s back catalog, and was taken aback. “How can you not be influenced by that?” he enthuses. “It’s so accessible, but at the same time you’re like, ‘how the fuck do you do that?’” This, combined with a eureka moment watching Chris & Cosey perform at Unsound in 2011 (“At the end of that set I knew what I wanted to do”) drew him back to his childhood piano teacher Alison Skidmore, who began emailing over vocal tracks for Stott to work with.
“Honestly, the first thing she sent I just laid it on top of an existing track and I was gobsmacked,” he recalls. “It was just made to be. Her style of singing is the polar opposite end of emotion and feeling to my production, and that’s the balance I tried to keep.”
His fusion of pop and Passed Me By’s dusty grit proved a successful blend, and Luxury Problems took Stott to another level entirely. He was already critically successful, but became a token electronic pick for the likes of the New York Times and Pitchfork, and boasted a legion of fans who weren’t simply eager to know the secrets of his studio processes. This allowed him to pack in the job with Mercedes and start concentrating on production full time, acquiring a studio space in Manchester with a photographer friend. That didn’t last long, after Demdike Stare’s Miles Whittaker convinced him that he needed a mixing desk. He acquired a 32 Soundcraft Ghost which was a little too big for the new studio. “I was struggling in that space anyway, so I thought it would be a good idea to invest in my house and get the cellar converted, basically so I could fit the desk in.”
The fresh analog setup suddenly allowed Stott the freedom he’d been craving, and the studio grew quickly. As Stott was experimenting with new equipment and new techniques, these sketches and ideas slowly began to form last year’s critically revered Faith in Strangers. “I really wanted a bass, I don’t know why,” he says. “I was listening to John Maus stuff, and just really liked that filthy Rickenbacker-style bass stuff. So I got one, and was messing about with that. I did something really simple ‘cause I’ve never played a guitar in my life.” Skidmore was still sending vocals. “I married this bass line up with one of the a cappellas that she sent me, worked on it – put some synths and nice chords around it – and that ended up being the last track on the album, ‘Missing’.”
It was Modern Love boss Shlom Sviri who gave Stott the push to carry on in this unusual direction. “[Sviri’s] as important as hearing the next big thing. Listening to him, I take everything on board. He’ll say, ‘Just do something that you wouldn’t do’ and I’ll end up at 95 bpm.”
Stott would regularly get together with Sviri and other members of the Modern Love family (Whittaker and his Demdike Stare collaborator Sean Canty, and Gaz Howell, aka GH). “We’ll play each other stuff, and even if you’re not into someone you get to hear why other people are into it and things that you never thought about. These get-togethers are as important as hearing an influential record or being at an influential show,” he says. “That was the main drive behind this album.”
These meetings also helped Stott overcome a significant creative block as he was attempting to craft the new record. “There was a while where – I don’t know if I was struggling with the desk – but I had hit a bit of a brick wall in the process,” he says. “Shlom came up with this idea: write something, don’t try and arrange it, leave it as a loop, mail it over, get on with the next one.”
This process came to define the album, and it’s one that Stott says he’ll be using exclusively from now on. “It’s so good, because the only time you’ve spent on the track is the time you’ve spent on it, you’ve not sat down two hours later moving parts around, arranging it. When you open it, you’ve not heard it a million times so it’s so much fresher, so much faster. It’s one of the best processes I’ve ever used.”
Occasionally these bare, unfussy loops remained exactly that; the album’s grime-influenced ‘Damage’, for example, ended up almost untouched. “What you hear is 95% the first take,” he says. “That’s what I sent over and Shlom was like, ‘minimal amount of work to be done to this one, minimal’.”
First single ‘Violence’, however, was a different story, and went through many iterations before Stott landed on the winning mix. “What Shlom’s idea did… it captured the raw moment. You just know when you’ve got something, that buzz or whatever, so when it comes back, for work, you know you’ve captured that bit. Fucking hell, the amount of times I’ve done that and then tried to arrange it and lost it, it’s like, ‘fuck me, this has fallen flat on its arse, this.'”
This process, combined with the naive glee of learning new gear, was all the impetus Stott needed to finish the record. “There was a point where I was still getting my head around the desk and you know, I think that was a good time to be writing music. Making mistakes is the most exciting thing you can. There’s tons of mistakes on the record.”
Now that Faith in Strangers is in the bag, he understandably seems to be concerned with translating his studio sound into something that works well in the live arena. “It’s just like, where do you put it?” he despairs. “I shouldn’t feel trapped, but some of Luxury Problems stuff, with the right stuff around it, lent itself to the club environment. This time around, the live shows are just not going to be the record.”
He doesn’t DJ (“I tried – bought two 1210s and a little mixer, probably lasted about six weeks and thought you know what, fuck it”) so making sure his live set is tight and engaging has been an important concern in recent years. Stott wants the new set to reflect his noisier, more spacious new direction, and has reached a point where he’s no longer afraid of ignoring the dancefloor. “In the past I’ve been introducing elements of tracks that people can latch onto, they’ll recognise bits,” he admits. “I can do something that’s quite somber on the record and follow it up with some quite hard hitting 4/4. Now I’m starting to think that’s a bit of a cheap shot, just doing that for high impact.”
A recent tour with Demdike Stare in the USA helped him to come to this conclusion. “Nine times out of 10 the running order would be Demdike Stare then me, and I’d just be stood in the audience watching Miles and Sean, surrounded by people stood there with their arms folded. Then when the set’s finished they’re just going mental – it was a big eye opener, you just don’t have to bang it.”
Performing live with Whittaker (under their Millie & Andrea moniker) also helped cure Stott of some of his live hangups. He’s an organised producer and performer by nature, and always prepares plenty of safety nets when he’s performing. “If something’s not going right I’ll have other avenues that I’ve created that I can go down. So that’s my solo show, and that’s what I tried and prepare for Millie & Andrea,” he says. “Then I’ll speak to Miles about it and say, ‘what are we doing?’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know, we’ll find out at soundcheck’.”
This mostly improvised method of working terrified Stott to begin with, but as the tour progressed it began to make perfect sense. “By the end of it I couldn’t wait for the Millie & Andrea show to come around because anything could happen, and that was the excitement. All this time I’ve been pre-occupied with being organised and having it nailed, things coming in at the right point, blah blah blah. If the sound’s there, who gives a shit how it comes in? Especially with that sort of material.”
“We’ve done shows where we’ve totally lost sync and it sounded like a bag of spanners in a washing machine,” he says, somewhat exasperated. “It’s been like, ‘Is that you?’ ‘Don’t know, is it you?’ The common one will be that me and Miles are there tweaking away, going from UK funky tempo up to hardcore breaks, rolling, rolling, rolling, and Miles will lean over and say, ‘I’m out, we’ve gotta stop dude’. So I’ll have to figure out how to break it down to silence and bring it back in. It keeps you on your toes.”
Aside from preparing the live show, Stott is busy collecting more new gear, checking out as much music as he can (“This morning I listened to the Micachu mixtape that DDS put out. Fuck me.”) and working through ideas for whatever comes next. “I’m just listening to stuff, taking influence, trying to narrow it down and putting my own identity around it.”