LWE Interviews Alex Smoke

If, of late, the name Alex Smoke seems to have slipped from your head, you can be forgiven. The man born Alex Menzies has been on somewhat of a hiatus, struck down by serious health issues. But in truth, that’s only part of the story. Over the past decade or so, Menzies has felt his priorities shift. The Glaswegian was just 23 when his debut album, Incommunicado, exploded onto the scene in 2005. Alive with his murky voice, plus strings and keys — the result of many years of cello and piano practice — it was a breath of fresh air for a world gripped by the drugged-out influence of minimal. The preceding years were marked by a long run of singles for Berlin label Vakant, and two more albums, Paradolia and Lux. The latter was delivered via his own label, Hum+Haw. Through it all, one can observe a growing characteristic: less deference to dance floors. Things have definitely gotten glitchier and more “difficult.” It’s this tendency which best explains his slight retreat from the limelight in recent years. But perhaps it’s time for another change. Menzies has just released a brand new album under the Wraetlic moniker, and a fourth Alex Smoke LP is already complete. Once again, the frank and cheerful Scotsman seems poised to capture the public consciousness, this time possessed with a confidence and maturity his 23-year-old self could hardly have imagined.

Tell me about your new project, Wraetlic.

Alex Smoke: I just had a few years of not being able to work very much. My health wasn’t so great, with the collapsed lung and all that stuff. It happened it Australia a few years ago. I’ve had lots of collapsed lungs over the years. So yeah, it was just causing trouble for a couple of years and then I was finally able to work again properly, so I just thought, “I’ll try and do a different kind of project.” Something just like… vocal sort of songs, more freerange in production, no 4×4, so yeah, that’s it.

So you’ve had a collapsed lung several times? [post script: While transcribing this interview, I remembered that Incommunicado contains a track named “Brian’s Lung.”]

Yeah, it’s something that’s happened many times over the years, but the last time it happened seriously was in Australia, about three years ago. It happened when I was playing at Revolver [an after-hours venue in Melbourne] and…

Mid-set?

Mid-set. It wasn’t the greatest. But I went to the Alfred Hospital, I was there for a week. And yeah, it was all good, but it just means I’ve got a weakness there which is always going to be there. They’ve stapled the one lung up, but then the other one will probably go at some point. It just meant, because of the operation, I couldn’t use the mouse. It was just aggravating the fuck out of it.

Is that something you’ve had since birth?

Yeah, it’s a combination basically. I’ve got a back which is a bit wonky, sort of means it’s putting pressure on the lung, or something like that. It’s a congenital weakness, loads of tall, thin guys have it, apparently.

Did that stop you from playing sport as a child?

Fuck no. I mean, that didn’t stop me from doing sport. My massive natural indolence stopped me from doing sport. I hate sport. I like darts, and I like pool, and that’s about it. I didn’t notice my lungs until I was a wee bit older and I started smoking, and apparently they’re not connected, but common sense tells you: definitely, definitely connected. That and going out hard and partying when I was in my early 20s.

So what happened during the set? Did you collapse onto the decks?

No, no. I knew I shouldn’t have gone on tour, basically. I knew it was there. It was threatening for ages, it was really causing me a lot of trouble. And then, I couldn’t resist going to Australia. I love coming to Australia for a tour. So I just went anyway. And it was really touch-and-go; every time I got on a plane, I was just freaking out whether or not it [the lung] was going to go. It wasn’t very nice, because I was just always worried about it. What happens, it just contracts, and it fills with fluid and it goes like, solid. It feels like something jumping about inside you. And every time I turned the bass back up it was making it just buckle a wee bit. But I finished, it was alright, and then I just went to the hospital straight after.

When you were laid up with the bad lung, what happened to your creativity? You must have spent a lot of time inside your own head, nutting out new ideas.

It was actually just very frustrating. The way it is for me, if I’m in a good creative space, the ideas are just there and it’s a matter of just getting them down. When I was ill it was just very depressing, because I couldn’t work, so I couldn’t actually do anything. Eventually I got to a stage where I could do a little bit at a time, and then I did the Faust project. But yeah, I just couldn’t work for any length of time on electronic stuff, and every time I did work on something it was a bit half-assed and I had to do it in half-hour spells, and everything I did was shite and I hated it.

Looking for a silver lining, did that period act as a reset switch of sorts? You’ve been producing for a long time and no doubt have ingrained creative routines?

Yeah, yeah, definitely. I’d actually got into kind of a rut. It’s a weird thing, if you have a bit of success and you become known for one thing, people are very reluctant to let you change. They don’t like you to change. Even if they don’t say so, you feel an instinctive pressure there to repeat yourself, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Say I’m making music for Vakant, in the back of my mind it’s saying, “It must be this and it must be that.” It’s not a creative thing, it’s very bad. So it was good for me to have time off, actually, yeah.

Why did you decide to commit a whole album specifically to vocals? Why not have half the songs as instrumental?

It was the concept I chose. It was partly because I like vocals. I like working with vocals, it’s just one those things that’s good to work with. It’s a hook; the way the human brain works, it just hears a vocal and it’s… there’s something about the human voice, even if you just use a tiny, tiny bit of a human voice, the brain just snaps onto it. So it’s a good way of engaging people. It also means you can work with short structures much more effectively. A song makes a short structure seem longer because it’s adding a layer of interest to it.

Most of the time your vocals are indistinct, so they’re more like an instrument anyway.

Totally. You can’t hear most of what I say, but I don’t care. It’s just purely an instrument, a timbre to work with. I know that’s a bit of a divisive issue, because I know for some people, they hate that, they hate not knowing what I’m saying. And I get lots of requests, people saying “What’s the lyrics to this or that?” Sometimes it’s lyrics. Half the songs on the album have lyrics. But half the time it’s just me going [makes mumbling noise].

With your third album, Lux, the profits were donated to WikiLeaks, Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth. Via Twitter, I’ve also noticed that you’re quite passionate about activism in general. Have you been tempted to use your lyrics to address those types of issues?

Yes. I have, and I did. The Wraetlic album’s got some. But I just don’t like to publicize my lyrics, I don’t like to have them written down as sleeve notes. It’s almost like something hidden. I don’t necessarily need it to be explicit, I just want it to be there. As long as I know it’s there, I’m happy, it doesn’t matter if anyone else can hear it or not.

Tell me about your classical work.

Yeah, it’s a big part of what I want to do, basically. Long term is film music, not in the kind of media writer kind of way, but yeah, music for film and classical composition. Just pure composition I’d love to do more of. So the last thing was the Faust project, a score for the 1926 film of the same name. That was sponsored by the Scottish Arts Council and performed by The Scottish Ensemble. It’s five strings, and it’s just the pure joy of composition. You don’t have to worry about rhythm and beats — it’s all one, you know? The rhythm and the melody and the harmonies — it’s a lovely way of working. It’s a very pure way of working.

Did you write that using musical notation?

No. For me it makes much more sense to work in piano roll [a graphical representation of notes used by programs like Ableton]. For me it’s much faster to work like that. Obviously, my background is in classical music, so at a push I can write and score, but it would take me much, much longer. And the way the software works now, you can convert it to score at the end and clean up any mistakes.

I’ve read that you enjoy producing alone, and even consider yourself a control freak. When you actually emerge from the studio, how do you handle working with an orchestra?

It’s fucking scary. [laughs] For one thing, you feel like you’re pissing in someone else’s pool, you know? You’re there and you’re working with very high-end musicians. These are people who are sight-reading a two-hour piece of music. They’re sight-reading all of it. They’re very, very gifted musicians. I know for a fact that before it happened, they were thinking to themselves, “That’s a techno guy who’s written a fucking score, whoopee doo. We’ll do it for the money and then we’ll go home.” So, you’re always aware of that. You’re aware that’s going to be the conversation in the dressing room, but to be fair, they were lovely and they were really accepting of it and just took it on its own merit. We’ve played it a few times together since, and we’ve done it live again this summer, so I think they’re actually okay with it.

Were you there at the rehearsals, saying “No, this part needs to be softer,” etc?

The first rehearsal like that was terrifying. They were like, “So what about this?” And I’m just so freaked out and nervous and all the rest, I’m like, “Uh…I don’t even know.” You just forget, everything leaves your head, you know? I’d done something really stupid where I’d put in different dynamic markings for different parts. When I’m writing with techno, I’m writing to say, “This part comes down and this part comes up,” so I’d have different dynamics for the violins, and then I’d have a forte for the cello; a really loud cello. But instinctively, as a group, they were playing as all one dynamic. It’s just the way they tend to work, they all work together. So that was kind of weird. All these markings, they were like, “Well I’ve got mezzo forte” and the other fella like, “I’ve got piano.” They’d be fucking confused, and I’d be really confused and embarrassed. So there were a few things to iron out like that, and things in terms of style.

At the moment, there seems to be a lot of interest for classical elements. Francesco Tristano, Brandt Brauer Frick, and so on. How do you feel about that?

It’s a very good, positive thing for classical music. So-called “classical” music. Increasingly, classical musicians, you know, they don’t necessarily want to be called classical. Orchestral’s a better tag, I guess, but it’s hard. Even that’s not ideal. It’s just the idea of using those instruments like any other instrument, not having them separated off into this rarefied world of fucking bow-ties and wine. Which, it alienates so many people for no reason. I think there’s a growing awareness that it’s beautiful music, played with such talent.

For example, I was doing a workshop thing at a young offenders institution in Scotland — a prison — called Polmont. It’s all young guys, they’re all under 21, I think, and you’re going there with some classical musicians and you’re going to write a piece of music, some hip-hop, and you’re going to add some real strings to it. And you’re thinking to yourself, “These are some pretty hard kids. They’ve grown up in some real ass-end of nowhere places in Scotland, really tough.” And you think they’ll just laugh you out of the park; classical instruments and that. But when they see someone playing an instrument, beautifully, with such skill, they’re just impressed, you know. I think that’s the thing that people forget: it’s not elitist, it’s naturally just good music, played with skill. People are just beginning to appreciate that on their own terms; it’s a positive thing. You have to see it live, as well. Particularly, modern orchestral music, you go and see it live, and it just brings it alive. It’s not the same as listening to it on a CD. It’s that whole performance aspect as well, which really makes a difference.

You moved to Berlin three months ago. How do you find it caters for that orchestral niche?

Berlin caters for every niche. Particularly for the art side of things, labels like Raster-Noton, labels who have made their name as kind of using arts venues, as their kind of thing, you know? There’s some big classical things. You’ve got the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the great classical orchestras of the world. So it’s got a really strong orchestral music culture, and there’s a lot of classical musicians. I’m actually doing a live version of Faust in Berlin sometime over the summer. We’ll see how it goes, but that’s all young musicians. It’s a group of people who do a club night at a place called Chalet, which is a club in Berlin. They have a series that they do there. They want to do it, they know some musicians, I just have to make sure that everyone can play it OK and that it all goes smoothly.

Do you still go clubbing?

These days… I mean yes, sometimes, but very rarely. For one, it becomes work and you associate it with work. It’s true, you walk into a club and it’s a bit like you’re expecting to play in half an hour. But yeah, sometimes. And I have been out since I’ve been in Berlin, a couple of times. I’ve got friends, which is good. And it’s good to keep your hand in a little bit and hear what’s going on. But Berlin is quite safe in terms of the styles of music which you’ll hear on most dance floors will be house/techno of a particular kind. The house ones will be quite light and frothy, and the techno ones will be quite [makes smacking noise].

You’ve said before that it’s important to make people dance. But obviously, you’re also concerned with advancing things stylistically. How at odds do you find these ideals?

It’s funny, because when I first started, the idea of people stopping dancing during my set was just like, “Fuck! Keep them dancing at all costs!” Even if I had to, you know, lace the smoke machine with speed. But now, I don’t know, I’ve matured and… it’s confidence. You don’t have the confidence to wind it down and to slow down and give people a breather or play some abtract shit. Now I’m much more open to the idea of doing a set which is — the Wraetlic one is completely wind-down, really. You can dance to it a wee bit, but it’s basically for listening to, you know? Even in the Alex Smoke stuff, I’ll have quieter moments than I used to. But you know, generally, at a club gig, people are there to dance. It depends on the venue.

In the 70s and 80s, we had a situation where electronic music was new, exciting and seen almost as limitless. Contrast that with now, where some people are purposely aping retro sounds –

This for me is totally uninteresting, the idea of stepping back and making the same music that was made 20 years ago. I mean, fine, it works on a dance floor, but it bores the shit out of me. There’s two things happening — actually it’s pulling both ways — you’ve got things like PAN, the label, which is much more experimental. Some of it is still looking back, it has to be said, it’s still quite electro-acoustic, Daphne Oram kind of vibe. But I still think it’s a little bit more interesting, pushing things forward. And maybe the classical thing comes into that as well. Using old ideas, bringing them forward, re-meshing them.

[Electronic music] is becoming more mainstream at the same time. All this money that’s getting pumped into the American EDM scene… for them, this is like golden cow time. They’re just sort of, rubbing their hands with glee. “Let’s get Rihanna and Guetta. Let’s get her head and graft it onto his body, and let’s get Deadmau5′s fucking rat-face and put that on top and we’ve got a golden winner here. And then we’ll sample it.” [laughs] I dunno, we’ll see. I think that’ll have a really good trickle-down effect, and it will encourage a lot of kids to get into music.

If you discount trap, the last real genre explosion was dubstep, which was more than 10 years ago now. Is there potential for something like that again?

I don’t know. I think, to a certain extent things have fractured, in a good way. For me, a big thing which I always say is the fact that genres have become a bit more broken down and a bit less strict. Like, all those so-called dubstep guys now make kind of, techno stuff. And that whole witch house thing, you know? Genres gone mental. But when you take away that name, it’s all very different music, actually. And interesting stuff, too. There will be another massive genre, of course. But it probably won’t be what I’m into. It’ll probably be something that’s for the kids. That’s what gets a genre big, it’s whether the youngsters are into it.

Do you think it’s inevitable that a majority of the older generation will look down upon each new things that arrives? It’s happened pretty much every time so far.

30-something people who find themselves moaning about the state of trap need to remind themselves that they are like their fucking parents. It’s inevitable that most people will be like that. But to stay open-minded, to try and take the good from everything, is good, you know? Try and understand where those kids are coming from. The fact is, trap’s so fucking hyper that it’s a bit of an onslaught for an old cunt. I’m talking about some of my Glasgow muckers here, like Rustie and Hud Mo, it’s like, “Whoa boys, you’ve got a lot going on there.” But I kind of find it invigorating as well, you know? It’s like, hyper-energy. So I can see the positive from it in that sense.

But then you have something like Kuedo’s Severant, which took these hyper elements and made them into something more tasteful.

Kuedo, I have to say, is outstanding. Totally outstanding. The fact is that a young person’s brain is going to be different from my brain, and it’s going to be able to operate twice as fast and take in twice as many day-glo fucking colors as mine. You know, that’s fine. I’ll take Kuedo’s version, because that’s cool for me.

How closely do you think the continuing progression of music is tied to technology?

You find records which are associated with technology. Like, you have AutoTune, or you have a really good 303 emulation comes out, and all of a sudden there’s an acid-house revival. I think there’s a lot of that. And I think Ableton and all that, all the amount of trickery you can do, there’s an element of that. But I also think there’s a place for simplicity, when you look at Burial. You can make Burial’s music with Fruity Loops, in all likelihood. But it’s the mindset which matters.

NCT  on April 22, 2013 at 12:35 AM

critical yet ecumenical – I like it

Rory D  on April 23, 2013 at 12:34 PM

Great interview and a top bloke!

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