Manchester electronic producer Andy Stott offered a strain of electronic music that was heavily narcotized, noisy and nightmarish — the beats slow and pummeling, the mood dark and menacing. But upcoming fourth album Too Many Voices shows Stott moving away from his dense, dark sound. He plays with pop vocals, more ethereal tones and lighter beats to disorienting effect. It's the sound of a bruising heavyweight fighter deciding he wants to take up tai chi.
Rolling Stone caught up with the elusive producer after his night-closing set at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville last week and talked about how he traded his grainy sound for something more "plastic," how his childhood piano teacher changed his musical direction and how old Dizzee Rascal and Slimzee grime mixes informed his new LP.
When you dropped We Stay Together and Passed Me By in 2011, it was a shift in your sound towards something slower, heavier.
My material prior to that was about getting used to the equipment that I had. I was finding all these sounds from records I had growing up. I was emulating Detroit-style stuff, Basic Channel, just figuring out how to mold sounds. With Passed Me By, the Modern Love label head Shlom Sviri suggested that I should start using field recordings and textures from outside my gear. When I started doing that, this whole new world opened up. I wouldn't sample before. That was how that started. My material started slowing down, tempo-wise, and I was getting more interested in the template of slow and murky. With that and the field recordings, the grain and grit fit into that tempo setting.
How did the introduction of vocals from Alison Skidmore on 2012's Luxury Problems change the emotional aspect of the tracks? She was your piano teacher when you were teen, correct?
I would have been 15, 16 when I was having piano lessons with her. I knew Alison was into more than just opera and classical music and [when I asked her for vocals] almost right away she was sending me a cappellas and asking, "How do you want the vocal? What language? Whispering? More pop? Operatic?" The first bunch of recordings that Alison sent, I could hear what needed to go around it. I can play a fair bit, layer chords and then bend her voice. Just like with the field recordings, it was a whole new palette. I didn't know I could do music like this. It just brought out a different approach in me. Gradually, it changed the emotional state of the tracks. It still had the grainy production but it was offset by Alison's clean, ethereal vocals. I started to move away from the grainy productions and moving towards making everything cleaner and brighter. Just using the vocal, you can really gain a bit more of an emotional pull in the music. It's really smart and nice when that all comes together. It becomes less cold.
It humanized the tracks in a way. I feel like on Too Many Voices, you've moved even further away from those slow, gnarly, extreme tones that defined the previous albums. Was that noise beginning to hem you in?
Not at all. It's just progression. I just naturally moved away from that sound. My interests have naturally moved on. On Too Many Voices, it's almost a more plastic, artificial texture, to be honest. Even though I was interested in a new sound palette, at the same time, I didn't want to completely detach from the previous works. To keep the thread running through everything, that was the knack. Shlom and I talked so much about the tracks I was working on. Once I have a body of work, he'll sequence it and maintain the thread through it.
Shlom is responsible for the black and white photography that adorns each release as well, right?
The record just wouldn't happen without him. Getting the right picture for each album is really important. It's got to relate to the material. That aesthetic is maintained by Shlom and his vision.
Did you change your set-up for Too Many Voices?
When I did Faith in Strangers, I acquired a lot of old analog equipment, old delay and distortion units, various pedals and rack mount things that replaced the software. Using these machines dedicated to those sounds gave a different character to what I was doing. If you were just using software, some sounds just wouldn't happen because when you push these machines, they do things and their circuitry gives out these really bizarre sounds. Soundwise, the new record was made with a brand-new set-up. I tore everything down and re-patched it. I knew I could get more out of my machines this time around. I'm still learning them though.
What was the strangest sound you came upon while making the album?
I was listening to these old Dizzee Rascal and Slimzee mixes and I was really inspired by the sound palette. I did some homework and realized a lot of these first-wave grime sounds came from these Korg Tritons. I got one of them just for these grime sounds. In this keyboard are these terrible sounding presets, but they still have this bizarre quality that really drew me in. I started to play with these synthetic, plastic-y vocal parts and it really took me away. That became the backbone of the record.
What about that "plastic" quality drew you towards it?
Definitely in the past, my productions were organic, quite dense and thick. There was something really false and thin and delicate about these new sounds. At the same time, there was something really beautiful about it and it sparked my interest. It triggered these other things that I had heard in my mind and I realized I could get the same vibe with that sound.
Too Many Voices at times sounds like these old Eighties boogie demos that labels like Peoples Potential reissue, these almost parallel world-type funk tracks; lo-fi yet funky, alien yet vaguely familiar.
Exactly, that's exactly it. That weird fourth world, other dimension kind of feel to it, that's what I like. There's never a clear idea when I make an album. I just write and write. I get exposed to new and old material and something will just stick in my mind and come out later. Sometimes a sound will just come and I'll just be off with the idea.
So in addition to these Dizzee and Slimzee mixes, I was listening to Theo Burt's experimental electronic album Gloss. And "Bamboo Houses," the old David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto single really sparked something for me. I took massive influence from that song. There's this fourth world kind of thing, the aesthetics of that single — it's amazing textually — but it has melody and interesting drum programming on it. For the early Eighties, it's just absolutely incredible. It just struck something for this new sound palette I had found, this synthetic, parallel world thing. It really made sense for me.