Neil Landstrumm interview: Scotland The Rave

Neil Landstrumm spoke in-depth with Marko Kutlesa about developments in music, his own productions and career milestones.

Becca Frankland

Date published: 20th Oct 2016

In its first decade, UK label Peacefrog Records released music by the likes of Moodymann, Luke Slater, Glenn Underground, Theo Parrish, Robert Hood and Paul Johnson, straddling the techno and house sounds of both Detroit and Chicago.

The more resolutely techno focused German label Tresor issued music by Jeff Mills, Mike Banks of Underground Resistance, Blake Baxter, Eddie Flashin Fowlkes, Juan Atkins, Joey Beltram and Surgeon. Within its first 10 years, Mike Paradinas's Planet Mu imprint released music by Aphex Twin, Luke Vibert, Venetian Snares and Paradinas himself.

The aforementioned are the peers of Edinburgh-based music maker Neil Landstrumm. He released his debut album Brown By August on Peacefrog in 1995 and its hard, uncompromising and often uptempo stylings ensured it remains a classic statement in techno. He followed this with several EPs for the label while simultaneously beginning his relationship with Tresor, for whom he made four albums.

Ever uncompromising and constantly reinventing his sound, Neil also produced three album's for Planet Mu in the latter stages of the last decade on which he deviated away from his earlier sonic template.

It involved considerably shorter tracks than previously, with different shades of electronica and techno displaying the influences of UK bass music, grime, dubstep and electro, at times combined with old school rave elements. Never fully accepted by the dubstep or UK bass music scenes because of his unorthodox, non-purist approach, his strive to constantly evolve and never repeat also alienated fans of his previous, more techno stylings.

He returned to a more recognisable techno sound on 2013's brilliant Dragon Under LP for Sneaker Social Club. In the last decade he has opened himself to working on many more collaborative efforts, including Modini with fellow Scottish producer Hostage, and Doubleheart with Keith McIvor aka Twitch from Optimo - the latter a key influence on Neil via his early 1990s residency at Edinburgh's techno night Pure. In preference to DJing, Neil has performed hundreds of live techno sets throughout his career, using analogue hardware equipment.

Ahead of two homeland shows, first the Halloween edition of Nightvision at La Belle Angele in Edinburgh (alongside Pan-Pot) on Friday 28th October and at Neon Flux in the Windsor Hotel, Kirkcaldy, Fife on Saturday 19th November, we spoke to him at length about his career to date.

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You've had a reasonably prolific album release schedule since you started. But there was a gap of six years before you released Restaurant Of Assassins on Planet Mu and then another four-year gap before you released Dragon Under. Can you explain these gaps? 

I guess it comes to me being a producer who doesn't like to record just for the sake of recording. I don't really churn it out. Like, a lot of people do 'techno as a business', come Monday morning they've got the 909 back out. I've always taken, without wanting to sound like a ponce, a more arty tack to it. If I don't have something to say, or the seed of an idea, I don't really do it. I don't feel the inclination. So there have been periods during my career where the studio has gathered dust. 

Albums are different projects. You have to have something more considerable to say. During that period I did release 12”s, or worked on other projects, but I just didn't have an album in me. The albums tend to follow chapters, so there was the Peacefrog era, then the Tresor era and then the Planet Mu era. It's very much chapters of what I was interested in at that time. And then other stuff gets in the way, you've got a life, you know? 

I moved from New York back to Edinburgh and I had quite a successful design and animation business. Also, the period before Restaurant Of Assassins was when I think I'd really had enough of techno to be honest. The dubstep and grime thing came along and that was the first thing that I'd thought for a while was pretty cool, so I started going back down to the north of England again, going to some pretty big raves there. They seemed more like natural breaks from my perspective.

I guess it's easier to talk about there being a Peacefrog era, a Tresor era and a Planet Mu era. Are you aware, when you're in one of those eras, that you're writing for a particular label who may already have an established sound?

It's a bit of a chicken and egg really. I've always been aware of having milked a sound for a while and I generally don't like repeating myself, so once I've done it I don't want to go back over it. For example, with the Planet Mu thing, it very much started as a fusion of the northern British rave sound and what was happening in grime, dubstep and dark garage. I felt like I took it from its origins, as a reworking, to a completed journey in that sound with the Bambaataa album.

I knew that the book had closed there and I just went off in a completely different tack after that. I guess I am aware that I'm working on a completely different thing, but that doesn't mean that I'm targeting a specific label. It just seems to happen naturally by meeting people. 

It's harder and harder to be on a bigger electronic label that does albums, there's not many left really from that Warp, Planet Mu era. With Planet Mu I was conscious of the fact I've always liked what they were doing, so it felt like a good place to be, but again, I wasn't targeting them.

Some of your early releases came on Peacefrog, a label which in the 1990s, unusually championed both the Chicago and Detroit sounds. What are your key inspirations from those cities in terms of artists and labels?

It was actually always more Chicago for me. I had a respect for Detroit and certainly some of my earlier exposure to this music was from Detroit artists that were brought to Edinburgh for Pure, which was Twitch and Brainstorm's night.

It was very forward thinking, they brought Richie Hawtin first, with his Fuse project and they certainly had Derrick, Juan and all those people. But I always aligned myself more with the funk and jacky, tracky sound of Chicago, from the acid house era and then into Dance Mania and Relief, Cajmere and Armando.

It had a much more low ball budget, but an incredibly infectious funk sound, whereas Detroit seemed a lot more serious and dark. Although it had the funk, it wasn't rooted in the disco thing, which Chicago was. I just loved that woop woop tracky dance mania kind of thing and gravitated towards it, but mixed it with the perhaps heavier British techno that was happening at the time. 

Yeah, in comparison, the Detroit stuff was futuristic and almost intellectual. Dance Mania and Relief was almost mindless, perhaps anti-intellectual.

Yeah. I've always had a problem with the intellectualisation of music. That's just far too chin strokey. That has its place and I do like serious discussion about music, but at the same time, I've never been one to take it too seriously. I think you can end up looking a bit like an arse, referencing your music to deep academic theory. At the end of the day it's 400 people in a warehouse in Manchester. 

With the Detroit stuff I liked the conceptual side of it, maybe more through the artwork than the academic teachings of it. In the mid-90s everyone in the UK had Jeff Mills as an absolute God and I liked it, but I just thought it was all a bit samey, hammering, repetitive arpeggios. It didn't have the party element that the Chicago stuff had. This worship thing of Detroit, I was a bit like... "hmmm". 

A lot of Detroit guys came through Edinburgh, like Claude Young, who came to stay because he was getting quite a few gigs, so it was cool to hang out with him and Dan Bell. I love Dan Bell, but he was much more DBX, he was from Detroit but was influenced by the Chicago sound. 'Losing Control' was a massive influence on me.

I appreciated Orlando Voorn too who, although he was a Dutch guy, was very much lumped in with the Detroit sound. But out of all of them, Kevin Saunderson was probably the one for me, just amazing musicianship, everything from pop through to really hammering techno. I know Blake Baxter quite well and I always liked his thing. But, yeah, I always loved Chicago more over Detroit.

'Brown By August' and 'I Trade My Ass For Drugs' are two titles from your back catalogue. By using such titles are you displaying your sense of humour or a gritty and grim social commentary?

It definitely falls into the sense of humour. I guess they're quite provocative. These days you've really got to try and stand out, it's so difficult to differentiate yourself from everyone else in techno. There's been this sort of horrible homogenisation that's gone on in the last 10 years and I've really fought against it, in part by having a bit of a sense of humour.

I guess there is a bit of social commentary in there. 'Brown By August' was very much reflecting the times. Edinburgh's always had that problem with heroin. We were doing a lot of partying and the joke was we'd be doing brown by august. At the same time it was a play on words. I do like words. Like on Dragon Under, there's a lot of different meanings on the titles. I like having fun with it.

Whatever the answer, such titles make me laugh. Laughing is an involuntary reaction I also have when listening to some of the music you've made in the latter half of your career. That's a reaction your earlier work, stuff on Peacefrog and Tresor, never seemed to provoke from me. Do you think it's fair to say that some of the music you've made latterly is more fun sounding? When did that start to happen and why?

Yeah, it's a good point. Certainly the Tresor thing was very serious, dark and experimental, but it's just what was happening at the time. It was very much about pushing the sound into new territories, new ideas of structure in techno, sub bass laden, very sci-fi. There's a funk there but it's certainly not funny.

One of my mates always reminds me of a review in The Guardian for the last album I did for Tresor which said, “about as much fun as eating raw cabbage” [laughs], which was quite cruel but probably true. I guess these days I've sort of opened up musically. I just don't care to be honest. I'm just gonna do whatever I want to. Like, right now I'm working on a synth wave/synth pop project and it's rooted in early Mute stuff, very Vince Clarke, The Normal, Human League. It's still got a good groove and quite heavy drums, but it's not serious at all.

Techno, the whole Berghain thing, it's cool but it's just so serious, po faced, boring. It's endlessly formulaic. I'm just waiting for this revolution from younger producers and there's seeds of it there, but it's certainly not in the mainstream. I'm hoping it sparks soon. You've got to have a laugh, haven't you? Or you'd give up. I've been at the point of giving up many times, but I just sort of dig down, perhaps listen to some older stuff that does have a bit of humour or a different slant on things, and then I go off again. I'm glad that you can see that (humour). 

The synth pop thing you mentioned, is it a solo thing or a collaboration? Does it have a title yet? Or a label?

It hasn't got a title yet. I always debate whether to put things out as Neil Landstrumm or start something new, but I always deferred to always having the same signature.

There have been collaborations, like the thing with Twitch, the Doubleheart thing, or with Hostage, the Medini project, but I'm always nervous that they just don't get the attention because there's so much volume of music. You kinda need anything to try and push it. But then the flipside of that is that maybe people go, oh, it's another Neil Landstrumm thing, I'm not even gonna bother listening to it. It's an endless debate.

There are collaborations in it, I've got six or seven tracks. There's one with a guy called Tommy Stuart who used to be in a band called The Magnificents, who I released on Scandinavia and who went on to support The Beta Band. He's got a huge modular collection. It's very synth based but with song structures, all the tracks are 3 and a half minutes.

It does feel like I'm building an album, but it is difficult finding a label. There are a couple of Dutch labels who seem interested and it does fit into that Clone sound, the Rotterdam thing. I'd love it to be on a British label but there are only so many who can afford or put the effort into releasing an album. I am currently whoring the material around labels. It's like fishing.

You seem to have expanded your palette as a music maker as you've gone on. Would you agree? What developments in music or in your life have come along to influence the changes in styles you have embraced? 

Partly it's a tempo thing. Certainly in eastern Europe I got known for that heavy, fast, experimental techno thing and I kind of did it to death. I've always had a separation in what I do live and what I do when recording. The club thing is very dancefloor orientated, I've got it back to a more fun, bassline lead thing now. It's going really well at the moment and I'm enjoying it, but it's not really at the faster tempos. It sort of maxes out at 130 or 132bpm and that's fast enough. 

I think what happened in the studio was, again, I really didn't want to repeat myself. I don't want to be the guy who does endless techno albums. It was really refreshing to do the projects with other producers, such as the one with Twitch. It's really good, as a producer, to be open to working with completely different ideas. Keith (Twitch) is always wanting to bring in elements of world music. 

I think before I was somewhat blinkered, somewhat of an asshole when it came to techno. I followed heavy metal into acid house and Manchester, I loved some of those bands, it hit at just the right time for me. From there, it was a gateway into British rave music, but I hadn't really fleshed out the history of electronic music. I went back into early Mute stuff and discovered Suicide, who were a huge influence, although I'd always liked Spacemen 3, who were very much influenced by Suicide.

Dub has been a constant thread as well. So, yeah, I think it was more about me not being such of an asshole about techno, being open to all kinds of music. I don't actually buy a lot of music, but I do think you've got to keep moving. I listen to a lot of radio, there's an awful lot of good stuff out there and that can be endless food for productions. 

You mentioned Manchester and Sheffield as influences. You obviously have an affinity with the area. You also mentioned the word British there. I'm from the north of England and we're generally more socialist there than in the south. In the past, we've had to count on the socialists in Scotland to keep the Tories at bay.

So, like you, I see an affinity between the north of England and Scotland. And, yet, you were pro-independence, which would have resigned us to several decades of Tory rule. Are you still pro-independence? Are you willing to let that affinity between Scotland and the north of England just slide?

I know what you're saying, there's a sort of abandonment there that I hadn't really thought about, I really didn't see it that way. At the time I very much felt that we had a kinship with the north and it almost felt like the people in the north wanted to come with us! [laughs]

It's true. I think many of us would have liked to.

I have a lot of friends in Manchester and Leeds, I've been to so many great nights. I think the sense of humour is perhaps the biggest bond, it's very, very similar.

It's such a tricky one. It's such a difficult time right now. The Brexit thing is just an absolute disaster. It feels like something has been taken away from us in Scotland, it's just completely against our will. It's just an awful feeling. Terrible.

To go back to your question, yes, I am still pro-independence, but I was never 100% sold on the SNP. I was very much Labour, but I feel so betrayed by them. It's better for the Blairites to be pushed out, but I still feel so betrayed by that generation. I support Corbyn and I appreciate what he's got to say, but I find it difficult.

I feel like I lent the SNP my support just to see what was going to happen and I am confident in Sturgeon. I think she's a very capable lady and certainly more than a match for Teresa May. But a lot of the SNP stuff I'm just not sure about. I just think there's a vacuum for something new, some new socialist movement. It's so depressing, to be honest. I would vote to leave the UK and stay in Europe. I think breaking up Europe is just not the answer and it was sold to the population on a pack of bullshit.

The people who voted for it, some of them are going to be the ones that are hit hardest, again. Waking up in Edinburgh that morning was just awful, it was misty, grey and so bleak and it just felt like a jail sentence. Edinburgh is one of the most anglicised places in Scotland but I think we voted among the strongest to stay in Europe. Oh, I don't know... I think there's a sort of fatigue that's set in now about independence and it'll have to be put to bed for a while, perhaps because they need for a generation to die off. 

Moving on, not least because I've a fatigue from talking sorrowfully about Brexit myself, why did you choose the name Scandinavia for your own label?

I always liked the influence of Scandinavian culture in Scotland. I'm actually from the Highlands and there always was a viking influence. The idea for Scandinavia was more from a design perspective, I wanted to invoke the idea of Scandinavian design, so it was a larger concept than the record label because I dragged it over to the design and animation business as well. 

How did it come about that you became involved in the project with Jeremy Blake and Mike Fellows? I know you met Jeremy while you were in New York, but how did Mike become in involved and do you have any particular favourite works from Mike's back catalogue? Were you aware of him before you started collaborating with him?

I can't say that I was. Jeremy was the art director at Rockstar Games and we just kinda got on personally. I went to see some of his shows and Mike was a good friend of his from Washington DC because they'd both been around in the Dischord era, hanging around Fugazi. Mike was in a few different bands. I met Mike at this art loft party where he was Djing. It was very much Jeremy who put the project together for Fourty Million Beatnik. 

Mike was very approachable, very open. He'd never really seen the digital workstation, computer-based way of doing things, he was very much a studio guy. I was DIY, this is the new way of doing things guy. It opened that up for him and he went on to do the Mighty Flashlight thing. I was aware of the Dischord bands and he was in Silver Jews, so I did go back and listen to it, but we were very much just working on this art gallery soundtrack. I'm sure he didn't know anything about me, we just sort of got on with it. It was very experimental.

Sadly Jeremy ended up dying, he committed suicide, as did his girlfriend, which is a pretty dark end to that story.

Oh, I'm sorry about that, I wasn't aware.

It was very strange. His artwork was very successful and I ended up doing the sound design, after effects and animation for it. He ended up selling it to The Whitney and the MoMA, he was very much the New York art star of the time. And then he decided to move to LA.

He was offered some work on a feature film, doing some similar style graphics. It was an Adam Sandler film (Punch Drunk Love, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson – Ed) and he asked me to do it, but we'd had this slight falling out at that point. He ended up doing the artwork for Beck's album Sea Change. But then his girlfriend descended into some kind of weird, psychotic paranoia thing, where the Scientologists were after them, again connected to Beck, because he was supposed to be a Scientologist. She became obsessed with the fact that the Scientologists were ruining her career in LA. 

I did a gig in LA in the mid 2000s and I wanted to meet them, because I wanted to close the loop with Jeremy and I wanted to clear the air. So, I met them and they were just so completely different to the people who I knew in New York. Just paranoid. Jeremy was never into drugs, but it sounded very much to me like cocaine paranoia. But it wasn't. In the end they moved back to New York to escape this and about a week after they moved back she OD'd on sleeping pills and Jack Daniels, committed suicide.

Mike came back into the story then, as he and Jeremy had always been gone friends. He put Jeremy on a suicide watch with another good friend of mine and he seemed to be ok. He made an excuse that he was going out to see somebody about work, he went to Rockaway Beach in Brooklyn, took off his belt and his wallet, walked out into the sea and drowned. 

Tragic...

It was absolutely tragic. There was all this shit about it in the New York art scene, there was a TV episode made that was based on it, then Bret Easton Ellis was going to write a screenplay about it. I got contacted by a few people. It was really weird, something like that happening to somebody you know. Because our lives were entangled at the peak of his career I know the inside story, but that's not necessarily the story that's gone out. A strange period.

You're self-taught in both music and art. That implies spending a lot of time working alone. Yet you've collaborated with other people like Bill Youngman, Hostage, Christian Vogel, Mat Consume, JD Twitch, Toby Smith. How do you choose who you collaborate with? Are they all friends first? In such collaborations do you have a defined role in terms what you do?

I'm quite open. I suppose they do come out of friendships or curiosities. I think you know instantly if you're going to work well with somebody or not, it definitely gels. For me it's about the mood you get or the atmosphere between two people in the studio. I don't like working remotely with people, it just doesn't work for me. So, we have to be together. I don't think both parties have to bring musicianship to the table. It's more about the ideas, the atmosphere, the tension perhaps. 

I do like to work quickly. I'm not into dragging things out for ages. For me, if you don't get a track going to some sort of moldable shape in about four hours, I know it's not going to work. There has to be this energy or spirit between you. Keith (Twitch), for example, is just an endless pool of knowledge of music. He brings so many different sources to the table. He's maybe not hugely skilled in the production sense but that's where I can bring it together.

I'm good at people bringing me bits of things and then putting it together into a tangible thing. It's a bit like that with the video and the graphics too, I'd get a bag of things and go and make something with it. 

Collaborations are endlessly refreshing because you may hit a point, personally, where you reach dead ends. When you bring in a fresh brain, a fresh set of ideas, it just immediately takes things off in a new direction. I always think it's fascinating when somebody comes in and plays with a synth you've had for 10 years and all of a sudden they just get these noises out of it that you just don't.


Image credit: 
Tom McGeehan 

Although your music has continued to develop and go through many different eras of change, one reference point that you continually seem to come back to is that early 1990s rave era where Sheffield style bleep techno, Belgian techno like early R+S, and British hardcore, both 4/4 and breakbeat, were all in the melting pot together, before things got compartmentalised and pushed into specific genres.

Would you agree? What was so special about that era, both musically and socially, for it to have had such an impact on you?

It's a great point. It is the core, no doubt. It's the fusion reaction from where I went off. I was just ever so slightly too young, it was always just slightly out of reach. In 1990 I was 16, it was when I went to see The Happy Mondays at the SECC and they had maybe Pickering, Park or Jon Dasilva on before them and they played LFO, Unique 3, Nightmares On Wax and all that kind of sound before the gig. I was like, “fucking hell!”, it was just amazing to hear that kind of stuff on this huge soundsystem

It was the, slightly cliched sounding, youth revolution. I'd been through metal and all that but this felt like a different era to me, this political youth movement that came along at the end of the 80s, with terrible unemployment, the Thatcherisation of everything and this was just a massive uproar. I was just like, fuck, this is our time, this is our 60s. I absolutely jumped on it, I wanted to experience it.

You touched on it in the question; it wasn't all split up. When you went to a rave night you got it all, you got hardcore, you got New Jersey garage, you got Chicago and Detroit, you got some of the Belgian hoover stuff, I mean, those records were massive. I remember going to HMV and buying 'Energy Flash' and 'Dominator'. They were in the charts! It was huge!

You kind of felt like you were on this conveyor belt of change, that was what was refreshing about it. It was spreading over Europe like a virus and it was influencing everything. It was a complete coup d'état in music and it was just so endlessly exciting. It was very much 1991, that year.

When you got into 1992 it was kind of getting nastier, heavier in the way that dance music always does. It was kind of the same with dubstep, which didn't have the same kind of impact, but it felt like there was a change here, there's a different youth movement and then very quickly it became this nasty, hard, silly brostep thing and it went through the cycle even faster. 

It has kinda come back a little now. I think Bangface touch on it. When they do their parties it doesn't take itself too seriously. They include a lot of music in one night. I'm kinda very proud of the British music thing, although I am very much Scottish. I do like what Britain has done, musically and culturally. It's a powerhouse when it comes to taking influences, twisting them around and creating something new. 

I also love that the rave thing was so inclusive. Everyone was welcome, football casuals, punks, rastas, scallies, travellers, students, hippies. I dislike that about the Berlin, Berghain thing which is, nah, you don't look right, nah, you've got trainers on, you're a scally, you're not coming in. I find that repugnant.

I love that British inclusiveness, the social inclusiveness that was around at that time. Everyone was welcome provided you weren't going to be a prick or violent. I remember the tensions at the end of the 80s. In Edinburgh, there were football casuals and it was aggressive, it was violent. You'd be scared as a young person going out shopping on a Saturday that this terror could appear, knives and all that.

But very quickly the rave scene diffused all that and it gave people the hope that there was something positive at the end of this Thatcher era, which had seen the destruction of industrial Scotland and the north of England. There was that High On Hope film and I think it was true that people were partying for something better. Whether that was a false reality or not, that's a different matter. But for me and for my generation it was endlessly inspiring.

Tickets for Neil Landstrumm at Nightvision Halloween - Friday 28th October

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