Originally published in BeatRoute Magazine.
Over the last 30 years, electronic dance music has undergone a rollercoaster ride of fads, styles and trends. As the ‘80s transitioned into the ‘90s, the drugged-out sounds of acid house gave way to the brash grooves of big beat, which in turn succumbed to the antinomy of French house and intelligent dance music (IDM). More recently, the electronic music scene has been dominated by the exaggerated bass rumblings of dubstep, Southern hip hop and trap.
Formed way back in 1989, the London-based Plaid is almost as old as electronic dance music itself. Yet the duo—composed of Andy Turner and Ed Handley—has somehow avoided the pull of the genre’s fluctuating fashions. Largely indifferent to the shifting scene around them, they have spent the last twenty-five years consistently producing music that’s as melodically infectious as it is intellectually demanding.
“We’re not really concerned with following trends,” says Turner. “We think we’ve developed a style, that we’re craftsmen. We’ve tried to hone our skills and produce better work. But although we’ve embraced new techniques, we will never write to fit in.”
This propensity to tread their own path informs Plaid’s latest album Reachy Prints, which was released on Warp Records last May. Retaining the group’s penchant for rhythmic and melodic complexity, for which they are often placed within the IDM camp, the disc marks a huge step forward in terms of production. It might just be Plaid’s lushest, most sonically nuanced release to date.
“This is our best album as far as composition and production is concerned,” enthuses Turner. “In direct comparison to 2011’s Scintilli, we’ve used a lot more processed ‘found sounds’ to add texture. We’re happy with the sound palettes we’ve chosen this time. And they’re great to play around with live, too!”
The group’s sonic development has proceeded in tandem with advances in music-making technology. Like many of their early electronica peers, Plaid cut their teeth on analog synthesizers and drum machines. But these days, Turner and Handley operate almost entirely from within the digital realm, employing software synths and digital sequencers as a means to unlock new and exciting aural vistas.
“Technology is another way to keep things fresh, as there are always new tools and techniques to explore,” says Turner. “And with the right production, software can get very close to analog quality, but with the added advantage of new synthesis techniques and production tools. In particular, we’ve been using a system called Mogees, which picks up vibrations via contact mics and uses these to excite physical models, producing a very distinctive sound. In the ‘90s, all of this would have been the stuff of a madman’s dream!”
That being said, Plaid’s relationship to technology isn’t only sonic in nature. Working alongside Jono Brandel—the creator of the visual sound-making app Patatap—the group recently developed an interactive music video for their track “Tether.”
“It’s a web application that uses audio stems from our track to build a graphic video,” explains Turner. “The user can affect playback by gesture on a touch screen device or click on trackpad. With coding languages like HTML5, there are some amazing possibilities opening up.”
Considering Plaid’s attentiveness to production and multimedia experimentation, it may come as a surprise that Turner and Handley can even find the time to tour. But in truth, the live show is a crucial part of the group’s identity. “The recording side is hard,” admits Turner. “But live performances are a quick fix. It’s fun to try things out, make mistakes, which can turn out to be good.” And over the past year, Plaid has performed their sonic experiments in venues all across Europe and North America, from Moscow to Los Angeles.
As with any successful long-term relationship, a musical partnership spanning a quarter of a century inevitably begets questions of “How do you keep things fresh?” and “How do you make it work?” For Plaid, the trick has been to try new things and never stop learning. “We often collaborate with other musicians and groups and have even worked on some game and film projects,” says Turner. “We’ve learnt a lot through these exchanges.”
Yet most of all, Plaid’s ongoing success hinges upon an unquenchable passion for music. “We still love making sound, so it’s never really hard work to write.” As for Turner and Handley’s personal relationship? “We’re good friends and communication is easy,” says Turner. “Sometimes we bicker like an odd old couple. But that’s appropriate, of course.”