Photo by Mads Perch
This year saw the collaboration of two luminaries in the electronic and dance music world. Mark Pritchard has a long history in a wealth of projects, from Global Communication and Troubleman to his recent Harmonic 313 guise for Warp Records. Steve Spacek formed the trio Spacek with Ed Spacek and Morgan Spacek (now Morgan Zarate on Hyperdub) before moving on to solo releases under his own name such as Spaceshift, which featured J Dilla on one song. After both relocated to Australia and found themselves living near each other, they embarked on an exploration of shared themes and beats. The result was Africa Hitech and 2011’s 93 Million Miles, featuring the breakout “Out In The Streets” single. While touring the U.S. they found time to chat with LWE about their history, influences, working together, and what the future holds.
When was the first time that you guys met each other?
Mark Pritchard: I think the first time we met we were both working for a label called Island Blue, which was a subsidiary of Island Records. A mutual friend called Ross Allen was running that label, and I met another band called Custom Blue, who was a friend of Steve [Spacek] and Morgan [Spacek]. So I think there was some kind of Island Records night, or somebody was doing a launch from that kind of crew, and then we all went to it and met them. And then I think I’d heard Eve off of Ross way before it came out, and I was really blown away by that. Then I think just really coming closer to Alex Pilkington (from Custom Blue), there was this point where when I started doing Troubleman projects I was thinking about getting vocalists to feature, and then I was thinking, “Oh, I really like Steve’s voice; I’d like to do something with him.” And I think then maybe by right about 2002-3ish, Steve came down to the studio and hung out for a week, and we started to cut the tracks then, and then one of those made the Troubleman album, and one later got released on Sonar Kollektiv, which is that “Turn It On” track. So that was kind of the first — yeah, we kind of met in early 2000s, I suppose.
With such long histories in dance music of kind all types, what keeps you guys evolving, do you think?
Steve Spacek: Man, just the excitement of it all, really. It’s just, because I always thought, no matter how much stuff you do and how much stuff you touch on, it’s not even the tip of the iceberg, you know what I mean? Sometimes I hear people talk about music and they say things like, “Man, everything that’s been done has been done already,” and I’m like, “Really?” I mean if you thought like that, then you might as well give up already, you know what I mean? I thought, with all the music that has ever gone before, it’s not even — we’re not even anywhere near completing anything. There’s just so many places to go with music. Within those twelve notes, there’s just infinite possibilities.
SS: And so it’s just the whole excitement of that. Because, you know, there’s this feeling that you get sometimes when you do a really great track, when you’re really satisfied with a track, and I love that feeling. And I always look forward to that feeling again, do you know what I mean? Like, where I’ve done something I’m just really buzzing off of and I know that I’m capable of doing that. I know that when I’m working with some people like Mark or whatever, I know that as a collective we’re capable of doing that. And it’s that feeling, that really good — that high, you know, within yourself, when you put something together and it’s sweet and right, and it’s nice and resolved, and the bass line and all the frequencies are hitting you in the right space, it’s just a right emotion being created. That feeling is almost second to none, you know what I mean? And so I know that infinitely that feeling is out there all the time. And then hopefully, you can encapsulate that within a track so when other people listen to it, they get the same vibe too. Or the essence of it, anyway, you know?
Does the history of all of that you’ve done before influence what you’re working on currently? Do you think about that, or are you always trying to move on?
SS: Well, I mean we’re always trying to move on only because we know that naturally, all the things that are meant to be in something, they will just fall in there anyway. When you’re doing stuff you try and cover all bases, but you can’t cover everything, you know what I mean? But if you’re true to yourself and you let it flow out, then when you look back on it, or when you listen to it or whatever, everything that needs to be in there will be in there. And sometimes it’s not and if that’s the case, then that’s fair enough. You kind of win some and lose some, but ideally, you look forward. You always look forward because some of the greatest music from the past… for instance, in the 60s and the 70s, you get so many people so hung up on that stuff. I meet people that are kind of into old music or whatever and they’re not interested in anything that’s new, and I think that’s really sad because what they felt back in the day, in the 70s and the 60s, whenever guys were making that music, one of the big reasons that it sounds the way it does and it’s so compelling is because they were doing, like, essentially what I’m doing now, you know, just without iOS. Man, they were messing with two-inch tape and those old disks, that stuff was state of the art; it was the latest technology.
But these guys had whatever they had within — inside them. And then they were interacting with these pieces of the latest equipment, latest gear, and a lot of it was kind of military gear that had been moved over to kind of the creative and the music side, you know, for film and whatever, do you know what I mean? But they were getting off on it. It’s like, “Wow,” you know, “This mad reel-to-reel machine,” you know, “I can put these two kind of spools up on this machine, and all of a sudden I can sing something into a mic, and when it comes out on this machine it sounds so beautiful. This is fantastic; did it just fall out of space?” Those guys would be flipping out on the latest technology, and a lot of the people that are kind of so hung up on the retro kind of thing, and nothing else, they kind of fail to miss that. So, for us, we’re kind of — we’re sort of championing that — we’re like, this is us now, here, right now in two-thousand and whatever, and we’ve got all these silly devices, I’ve got my phone, I’ve got, like — what do you call it? — I’ve got a Minimoog keyboard from nineteen sixty-whatever, I’ve got the MPC from maybe 10, 15 years ago, I’ve got this iOS app that hasn’t even come out yet — whatever. I’ve got all these bits of equipment, and I’m flipping out on the fact that this is what’s available to me right now, at this point, and I can make this music, do you know what I mean? I can convey this emotion. And so that’s where we’re at. It’s always about looking forward, but with what we’ve got around us.
When did you start talking about working together on Africa Hitech?
MP: Well, we coincidentally moved — we both ended up in Sydney, Australia, and I basically spoke to Alex, because I hadn’t seen Steve for a little while; I think he was in L.A. And then I just told Alex, you know, “I’m moving to Australia,” and then I was over there, and then he just said, “I think Steve might be coming to Australia.” And then when I moved, I went back home to pack up my life to ship to Australia, and I think Steve landed — you know, he’d been there a few times already, but then he actually landed there just as I left to go back and get my stuff to come back. So yeah, we both ended up, like, 10 minutes from each other on the other side of the world. Which is awfully nice because it’s a big move for both of us, and going to a place, a new place, with at least somebody you’ve worked with before, and also you have a lot in common with musically, which was great; and as soon as we got there we were just kind of hanging out, and we started music straight away. So seven years ago we started making music, and then I supposed the more we were doing it, the more we started — the album just developed from there. At the Toronto Red Bull Music Academy we did the track called “Blen.” And we did a track called “Too Late,” and we’d been working on stuff before that. And then it got to the point where we were like, “OK, we’ve got this kind of thing that’s happening, and some different vibes of tracks are kind of happening,” and then over the next few years after that we just kept working on stuff.
I played “Blen” to Steve Beckett, who runs Warp, when I was finishing the Harmonic 313 album, and he was just like, “What’s this? You’ve got to put that on the album.” And I was just like, “No, this is just another thing — another project I’m doing with Steve. You know, we’ve been working on music for a while.” And he thought, “Well, if you’ve got more music like this, then I want to do it,” straight away. After the the Harmonic 313 album we just kept on working on stuff, basically, and then it got to the point where we were like, “OK, we need to kind of lock in and get this album, you know, work on this album and finish it.” So a lot of the stuff is quite old. I mean tracks like “Glangslap” were probably three years old, and “Our Luv” is at least two or three years old.
This is stuff we’d been working on, which is quite good because when we actually went to lock into finishing the album we probably had four or five tracks pretty much done. And then we had a hundred plus tracks that we’d started through that period, and we just went through choosing which ones — we’re both constantly writing all the time so that was the hardest part, really — working out what was going to go on it. I mean it wasn’t really hard because luckily there was a lot of stuff that we were into, but it was just like, “Which ones shall we finish?” It’s in some ways a gamble. Sometimes you pick ones you think are going to be good, and you work on it for a couple of weeks, and it kind of turns out OK. And then sometimes other ones that you think are kind of not a quite nice idea, you work on them, develop them, and all of a sudden you realize, you know, it’s much stronger than what you ever thought. An average track would take a couple weeks, I’d say. And that would happen over maybe three years. You know, so I might spend a day on it, and six months later a might do a couple of days. You know, and then other tracks like “Out In The Streets” were done in pretty much one night. And then I think a week later, I spent another day on it, and that was it.
Did you always know that you wanted to explore dance music through a shared history of African rhythms on the album? Or did that come about organically through working on the album?
MP: Yeah, it just came about organically because I think it’s something that we both look for in music and it naturally kind of goes that way. But the more we started talking about, really, then the name Africa Hitech came up, and then the more we thought about it and talked about it, we both realized that we thought the same thing: it’s like the music we like has that kind of connection to African music. And growing up in the UK has a similar kind of connection, but at the same time you have far different aspects like Jamaican music coming in and Jamaican people coming to the UK. You start just thinking about these things, the reasons why — because a lot of people look at the UK, and they split things up in genres — “Now dubstep’s happening out of England” — but really, when you look back and kind of think about why this has happened, and we always felt that it was the same thing, anyway. It was drum and bass and when dubstep, especially the second time around, right about 2004 when it kind of had that second resurgence with Skream, Benga, Digital Mystikz coming through. it was exciting because it had the same possibility and excitement of what drum and bass did. And all these things have these kind of feelings; it’s just — it’s a tempo, it’s an idea, and you can go — you’ve got a bass sensibility and a drum sensibility, and then you can just go anywhere with it. I mean broken beat’s the same, jungle is the same, garage, grime, up to UK funky, and then going even to footwork from America. It’s just another idea. It’s a rhythm, it’s a tempo, and then it’s open to anything, which is what makes it really exciting.
When I reviewed the album for Little White Earbuds, I made a note that it almost seemed like you were traveling backwards in time over the course of the album, that it was very current in the beginning, and then as it went on you started to hear kind of older song structures. Was that a plan, or did that kind of just come about when you started sequencing all the songs?
MP: Yeah, I think it came about when we were sequencing. We basically kind of wanted to have an album that had some more aggressive club kind of tracks, but also some musical things because obviously an album — you kind of hope that it will be something that people could listen to, and it has different ups and downs and different vibes. Because if you just have loads of 140 [BPM] grime hard techno kind of sounding tunes and some footwork, it’s like you need to give the listener some kind of different vibes to go into. So then otherwise if you have five hard grime tunes in a row, they can really kind of lose their impact. And we didn’t want it to be the kind of album that — we worked really hard trying to find a way of making it so it wasn’t starting off mellow and then going really hype and then ending, or starting off really hype and then just going to all the mellow tunes at the end. But at the same time, it’s kind of like, it’s quite nice to lead people on some more musical kind of, more emotional kind of sounding tracks. So it just felt natural to kind of go that way, but we really tried to kind of get some in early — have a few kind of clubbier ones and then have a few deeper ones and more musical ones and try to switch it up. But instantly there were tracks like “Cyclic Sun” that just felt like a nice ending track. But we had a few tracks that we felt were quite — would be nice, and it was sometimes quite difficult, at that point, to try and find a way. But we always try and get help, when I’m sequencing albums, from other people who I kind of trust their opinions because you get so close to the music and sometimes you would never think about putting one track after another. You’d be like, “Oh, that won’t work.”
One of my favorite tracks is “Cyclic Sun,” and I think it’s because it has a very Mulatu Astatke kind of vibe. Were you looking to evoke African luminaries like him through it?
MP: Yeah, I mean I’m a big fan of his stuff, but I think that one, for me, is kind of like — was definitely — I’m a big fan of Moondog. It has that kind of cyclic sound like a lot of Moondog’s music has, those kind of sounds, and I was really into that kind of vibe and trying to work on that. But also, yeah, it has some — I think you can hear a definite influence from other African kind of music. I think that one, for me, was just kind of trying to work on having those kind of like — using the flutes and having those cyclic sounds happen to fall over each other, and you can have different chords kind of coming down and falling, creating different harmonies — trying to do something like that, but with an African kind of rhythm to it.
It was interesting that it comes towards the end of the album, after you’ve gone through all of these very kind of modern footwork and high tech, so to speak, tracks.
SS: I mean, that’s just the way the album was sequenced. When you’re so close to the music and you’re recording it, you know, when you get to putting it — sequencing it together, sometimes that can be quite hard. As you’re putting the album together, if kind of all makes sense, it just falls into place, and by the end you’re like, “Yeah, I know that’s going to go there.” But you know, we were so close to the music it was quite hard so we sort of gave out a few set lists to friends, you know, like Mark’s girlfriend Lorna [Clarkson], she DJs quite a lot, you know? Just the people who we know around us that we respect in music. And they did they’re little iPod or iTunes sequences, you know? That’s sometimes what I do: I just do an iTunes shuffle, and I find sometimes the shuffle just comes with some wicked kind of arrangements. Some tracks finish, and the other track kind of blends in — I don’t know how it sort of works out — but you can come up with some really nice arrangements there.
Another thing I realize is, you’re really close to the tracks sometimes, and if you can just get them and just throw them up in the air and just let them land, in that sequence there it might be like, “OK, that’s the way they landed; I’ll listen to that. Alright, sounds a bit alien.” But as time goes by, it just makes complete and utter sense. It’s just a funny thing with the brain. The brain kind of just makes sense of everything after a while. You look at something, and it just looks a bit kind of random, and then all of a sudden you start to see patterns. And you can’t imagine it any other way. It’s like, “Uh oh, even though I kind of put this together randomly, now that it exists, it makes complete and utter sense, and I can’t imagine how it would’ve been any other way.” The brain’s got a funny way of kind of doing that to you. So once you’ve got the music you can’t even be too precious about it, do you know what I mean? There’s sort of a kind of element of randomness in the sequencing of the album and a little bit of the, “OK well, maybe that should go after that track’s a definite.” But yeah, that’s just the way it ended up, essentially.
And then, by contrast, tracks like the title one seem very far away from what a student of African music would recognize. How did you translate that central idea into more modern ideas like the more footwork-influenced stuff?
MP: Yeah, I mean that track still, I suppose, it’s African definitely in the rhythm and the bass. It’s still there, just the palette of sounds is different. That track, to me, just sounds kind of like Detroit techno, in a way. But it’s not, you know, the pattern is more an African kind of rhythm or something more like a grime person would do, in a way — it’s that kind of syncopated kind of rhythm. But at the same time the palette is kind of — it reminds me of Detroit and Chicago house in the early 90s, in a way. It’s got that kind of vibe to it, but with a different kind of rhythm. That’s really one of my favorite ones on there.
What was the process for working together? Were you passing files back and forth, or did you spend a lot of time in the studio together?
SS: Aw man, we were in the studio a lot of the times because Mark’s studio is just down the road from both of us. We both live in Baradine in Australia, and his studio is based in an area called Surrey Hills, which is literally, five, 10 minutes tops in a car. Down the road. And it’s quite a nice little area, so we spent time in there, essentially. We’d sort of just be in there, and I’d have an idea or Mark would have an idea, and we’d put it out there, we’d be playing each other’s stuff, because we were always on the same page, and just be flipping out on each other’s beats or whatever. And maybe Mark would have a groove or whatever, and I’d hear a bass line, and I’d be like, “Yeah, I can hear a bass line.” I would jump up and stick the bass line down on it, and then Mark would get back on it again or vice-versa, you know? I would have a groove and Mark would hear a synth line or a bass line or whatever. It’s kind of quite easy, really. And the times when we were apart, then we were exchanging files, but that was rare, really. Because essentially in the last sort of few years, the projects that we’ve been working on have been mainly together, so we’re kind of always sort of around. But yeah, we’d essentially just be in the studio sort of trying things out and just messing around with stuff. We’ll go home and we’ll have our laptops or MPCs or whatever and just have grooves, and then come back and meet up. Or sometimes we’d go into the studio and just be like, “You know what? Let’s just start something fresh,” just sort of like wiping the slate clean and just come into something fresh. It’s fun. It’s the way it should be, really? Just enjoying it. Doing it because we can and it’s there, and then trying to just create something that’s amazing.
I found it real interesting that for the singles from the album you’ve chosen to rework songs and do versions, almost like a sound system way of working. Is the idea of sound systems and versions really important to what Africa Hitech is about?
SS: That’s part of what we do because part of what we champion is that whole sound system thing, anyway, because we grew up in that — more so myself, just being in London and being in Jamaican UK and being in that environment. But it’s just naturally a part of what we do, the whole version thing, and the whole dub plate thing. And you know even with doing stuff on the iPhone, I’ve been — I mean I haven’t really come with it yet so I’ve kind of got to hold it down, but I’m coming with a whole iPlate thing, do you know what I mean? Instead of dubplates. We like that feeling of back in the day when the guys that were in the sound systems were making tracks. Like they would make a track on a Friday afternoon, and by the night that track was being played in the club. It’s fresh and hot off the press. That’s quite a nice feeling, that sort of thing. Maybe it’s not as immediate as it used to be back then, but in a lot of respects we do champion that as well because sometimes in a set we’ll play some grooves that I might have literally just laid down on the iPhone whilst I was on the plane before a gig. And if the vibe is wicked enough, we’ll literally stick it in Logic, you can just maybe boost it up a bit, and play it that night. But yeah, it’s just one aspect of what we’re about. And it’s definitely part of it. It kind of fits into what we do, but in the context of now.
Steve, since you mentioned the iPhone a couple times, where do you see this kind of new instrument fitting in to the workflow of kind of music making these days?
SS: I think the main thing in that is that you’re talking about economics and stuff like that now. Because not everybody can afford to have a studio space, but also as well more people are traveling. More people are moving around so it’s really nomadic at the moment as well. I live on the completely other side of the world to where I was before. So for me it’s like that — that just makes it — it just means I’m on the road, but I’ve got all the tools I need to put together this idea that’s floating around in my head. So I’ve got this groove that’s just bugging me. It’s like, “I’ve got to lay this down,” I just pull my phone out, and it’s a done deal. In some cases, if I’m lucky, I can kind of translate that groove from my head totally the way I hear it down onto this piece of equipment. And then it might just be a simple case of going into the studio and just boosting it or mastering it or whatever. Giving it an overall mix, or whatever. Or, in some cases, then it’s a case of where I’ve got the basic kind of structure or the skeleton, then I just go in and elaborate. But yeah, the possibilities are endless. It’s one of those things that literally maybe tomorrow or in a month’s time, some other kind of angle that we don’t even know about’s just going to pop out of it. And all of sudden people could be using it in a way that we never imagined.
I don’t know whether people were thinking, “We’re going to make these apps so that people can make professional music,” Or whether it’s like people can just play around with sounds and have a little kind of like mess around whilst they’re out and about or whatever. When we first started making music on the phone, for instance, loads of people were saying, “Oh, really? Wow, you know, I’ve kind of heard about that stuff, but can you really get anything decent out of it?” And I’m like, “Are you for real?” If you make music, you can get anything decent out of just banging on the wall. So if you’ve got a piece of equipment that’s got tones in it and drums in it, if you can’t make a complete track from that. I mean, sometimes people kind of miss the whole point. At the end of it there’s instruments around us right down to your voice or, you know, just tapping on something — so if you’ve got something like that that can emulate a Moog or a 808 drum machine or you can put samples in it, then it doesn’t matter how small it is or gimmicky, it might come across. It’s like a valid instrument within itself, do you know what I mean? Because if you click your fingers, that’s a valid instrument. No one can take that away from you. It’s all context, and it’s all the way you see it. [If] it makes sense to you, then hopefully it makes sense to everybody else. And that’s all that matters. But yeah, in that whole iOS thing, man, that’s just like some whole untapped, infinite universe. And it’s just starting. It’s just crazy. Because some of that stuff is even more powerful. I mean, for instance, the Fairlight thing. You know, they’re saying that that little app in the phone is way more powerful than the other one that cost, like, a quarter million two decades ago, do you know what I mean?
Yeah. Certainly the processing power is a lot different.
SS: Exactly, you know? It’s just kind of way more up on it. So go figure. You can kind of go wherever you want to with it. It’s all about what’s inside your mind. And where you want to take it, what you want to do with it.
Once you guys start moving on to making more music, do you think you’re going to be exploring the same concepts of looking back at African rhythms, but in different ways?
SS: Yeah, I mean always. I mean it’s exciting becausewe don’t even know where we’re going to end up with it. The album, the way we presented it is — when people hear it as far as they’re concerned, that’s a snapshot of us at this particular time. But when we were actually sequencing the album together we had this selection of over a hundred tracks. That’s just ones that we’ve recorded down. There’s bits still lying around in laptops, in Logic sequencers. I’ve got a ton of stuff. There’s just loads to play. It’s just really exciting right now, man, because even when we put the album together, there were all these tracks we had to choose from, but then there’s a load of stuff that people ain’t going to believe when they hear it because it’s really quite African sounding as well. They’re quite raw, the drums and stuff like that. But maybe still slightly tech-y, just maybe not as tech-y as the stuff that people have heard, maybe a lot more traditional. But not trying to be traditional; it’s just that’s the way it came out. We were feeling these certain sounds, we put them together, and somehow it sounds a lot more organic and a lot more kind of old school. But then with that stuff we kind of lace it slightly with some of the modern stuff. Not too much, just so there’s a little kind of edgy kind of juxtaposition. It’s nice to have that push and pull of, “Right, it’s kind of over there, but then it’s kind of over here, but then it’s kind of in the middle.” It’s kind of like I’m not too sure if it is or isn’t. Other people hear it, it’s distinctly right over there, do you know what I mean? And it’s just like — kind of when people listen to it, they can kind of get their own vibe from it. Do you know what I mean?