Interview: MLZ (Demdike Stare)

After a Jodorowsky-inspired live performance at Berlin’s Transmediale, Miles Whittaker of Demdike Stare and Modern Love label talks about his early dance music involvement, production techniques and a busy workflow, ahead of his forthcoming gig in Belgrade

As one part of the renowned electronic duo Demdike Stare, Whittaker performed an extended thematic concert last week at Transmediale festival in Berlin, inspired by films of cult Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Together with his bandmate Sean Canty, he ventured into a unique sound territory based on occult soundtrack samples, atmospheric dub and some impeccable production design.

Also known by his projects Pendle Coven and Suum Cuique, Whittaker has been delivering a stream of quality releases over the last few years. As a DJ (under the aliases of DJ Miles, MLZ or Millie), he takes his listeners on an exciting trip through the deep and dark corners of contemporary electronica, from timeless classics up to the most intricate editions of the low end spectrum. On Friday 8 Feb, the crowd at Belgrade’s supremo party boat 20/44 will have the chance to partake in this sonic adventure over a vinyl-only set up, a sort of rarity nowadays even amongst the most dedicated of DJs.

What were your first encounters with electronic music in North England, did you have an experience of the 90s UK rave scene? Was this experience related to the Manchester scene?

I come from a small town which is 40 km from Manchester. The first club I went to was a local one called The Angels, I started going there in 1989-90. They had everybody there in the early 90s, DJ Hype, Carl Cox… A lot of the early rave piano stuff, like Dream Frequency. It was very very local, I used to go there when I was 15, I was working in a local bar and had a chance to go in for free to these parties, so that is how I was introduced to dance music. As soon as I started driving we were going to this big club in North England called The Orbit, which was in Leeds. They had all the big DJs coming. So it was the first place I heard Basic Channel, and when that happened I realized that I really wanted to start writing music and not just buy records. The scene in Manchester was different, so we were pretty much related to Leeds.

Around the town where I come from there was also a lot of illegal warehouse raves, in Yorkshire. That is where I could hear proper acid house music. Today it is very different, you go to a techno club, or a house club, or a d’n’b club. At these warehouse raves you could hear Happy Mondays alongside Adonis and DJ PA, all these kinds of music together, which were considered “dance music”. Nowadays the scenes are much bigger on their own, and when I DJ I tend not to follow the “modern way”, I play all kinds of styles.

Demdike Stare, “Symbiosis” (Modern Love, 2009)

So DJing was your first direct involvement with dealing with dance music?

I used to DJ at the local clubs, but it really started when I was working for the label called City Center Offices. I was the label DJ, they were based in Manchester and that is how I got introduced to the whole scene there. After a few years, we started the Modern Love label, together with Andy Stott and Claro Intelecto. That is when I started releasing records. I was producing for along time before that, but the music was probably not ready, there was not a particular sound there. It is relatively easy to release records, but it is not that easy to sound like yourself. Now it really sounds how I want to, and not necessarily like somebody else.

Over the years you have been involved in a number of productions and live projects – Pendle Coven, Millie & Andrea, Demdike Stare, Suum Cuique… Do you specifically make tracks for these individual projects when you work in the studio, or you just work on music and then think about where it fits best?

No, it is just working on music and then we look what fits good together. For example, some of the Demdike Stare tracks is just me on my own. Some of the Miles tracks might be some Demdike edits. Nothing is ever specific, I just like to play around until something sounds good, record it and move on. Last year I produced 180-190 tracks, which is musically a hell of a lot, you do not need to release all that, so it is good to have someone to choose and say how it is best to go with it. That is what Modern Love does, he comes up with the idea and we listen together and decide what to do with the material.

Modern Love, specially in this kind of scene, seems as one of the best curated labels, both on the visual and sonic sides…

Yes, he has got an amazing set of ears, and that is one of the reasons why we don’t release anywhere else. We don’t need to, we are all friends. That is the first thing, and everything else comes out of there. We get a lot of offers, specially with Demdike Stare, but we do not need to release anywhere else. We did only two remixes with Demdike Stare (for Honest Jons and Finders Keepers), they are all our friends. I prefer to keep music that way, otherwise it is easy to lose focus.
There is also a number of projects where people have no idea we are involved, we release them completely anonymously. I would rather have music stand on its own.

How much time do you spend in the studio then?

When I am in Berlin, definitely every day. It is still so much fun. When I am on tour, I always work in Ableton, because I get bored very fast otherwise when I am traveling. I just did an Ableton workshop last week, and I showed how I copy my hardware from the studio to Ableton, my synths and other stuff, so I can use them when I am on the road. I built the Dark Energy synth in Ableton, I love to be able to work anywhere. I am in the UK a lot, and if I have a chance I would work everyday.

You work with a fair amount of hardware in the studio. Does it mean you work on sketches while on the road, or you even finish tracks?

It doesn’t matter, sometimes it is pure hardware, sometimes software. I don’t care. It is more about having fun and actually completing things. I think I wrote 40 tracks in the last 4 weeks. And it is not because I rush things or anything, I just like to do it. I never like to be stuck and you always need to move forward with music. A lot of people get stuck with one track for a month, but I think you gotta move forward all the time.

The Demdike Stare project is something that is at the moment catching the most attention among many of your projects. How did it occur as a project? It also appeared at a time when music with similar, “haunty” atmosphere found its way into many genres, the hype machine soon enough started pushing it. And Demdike Stare is definitely different and on its own…

I think people were ready for this sound of music, which has actually always been around. Even back to library music and music concrete from the 60s. People were finally ready for it and it became fashionable, so to say. But our project started because me and Sean have known each other for 20 years, and I was trying to get him to work on music for the last 15. We just both wanted to do it, without thinking whether they are going to be released. We compiled a bunch of tracks and sent them to Modern Love. They’ve said they wanted to release it, although we thought it would not work as there are so many styles interwoven on one record. It does not work in the dance music world. But it seemed to have worked very well for us. We made a decision early on that we wanted to change with every record. We have two new 12″s which will come out in a month or so, that are very different to anything we’ve done before, they are more extreme. Hopefully they will also be surprising, in a way.

You’ve had a lot of releases coming out in a short timeframe. Is that related to your workflow?

We wanted those three records to come out together, and that was also related to the design, done by Andy Votel, a really nice set of sleeves. All the tracks were ready, and for “Elemental” we wanted to have an extravagant format, four 12″s in a set. But we won’t do that again. We will do the next ones very fast and simple. People seem to think that we released a lot of music, but when you think of it – we didn’t. The last was in December 2011 with 15 tracks, and a year before we released those three albums with 23 tracks in total. So that is really not a lot of music. I just think that they still sound good, and we are still getting invited to play based on those releases, which is amazing. A lot of producers feel the pressure to put records out, to be present and visible, and that is not what we want. The next one is my solo album, as Miles, and a 12″ after that. I will not work on new MLZ material anymore, as that project was done in a time when I wanted to emulate the sound of some of my favorite producers. You need to listen in order to create. So that was all influenced by Basic Channel, Mika Vaino and similar things.

You played a really big show at this year’s Transmediale festival, a project inspired by the films of Jodorowsky. Did you ever expect to be in that position when you started making the Demdike material, and how does it feel? Will there be more thematic or commissioned projects?

No, not really, but it is great that we get so many offers. We will do another one in March, which we played at last year’s Unsound festival, with an orchestra. We will play that in Australia. It is amazing to have a chance to do it, but it is also extremely stressful, working with “real” musicians. I still think I am a kid which moves stuff around until it sounds good, I don’t know about music in that traditional way. It is strange to look at where we are now. We also finished a soundtrack for a movie, a vampire movie called “Kiss of the Damned” by Zoe Cassavetes, the daughter of John Cassavetes. That is really an area we want to move in, we are very influenced by soundtracks and library records. For Demdike atmosphere and mood are the key focus. Even if it is a techno track, we want to induce a particular mood into it.

As a DJ you are sticking to vinyl. Is it a choice because you want to stay connected to this kind of culture, or you are also doing it for the specific sound dynamics that the vinyl records have?

As a performance, playing with vinyl is much better. You also need more skill and craftsmanship. I do it that way because I have been buying records for 25 years, and I have this amazing selection of house and techno and everything else that I can choose to play from. I could put it on my hard drive, but I have fun playing with vinyl, much more than I would have with files. It seems to be much more creative and fun, and I also love the feel of it. I feel more like I am performing, and I also still just love buying records.

In Belgrade you will play in a small venue with a relatively powerful PA. Do you still get to play venues like that, and do you prefer that context or proper clubs and festivals with big stages?

My favorite club is Golden Pudel in Hamburg, it is tiny, maybe for 150 people. I much prefer to play to an intimate crowd, there is more atmosphere and connection. And I think that is what music is all about. It is great to play on a big stage in an auditorium, but when I DJ I really do it for the dancefloor, and I myself enjoy jumping around a bit. But I have already hear so many good things about the venue in Belgrade.

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