Of all the acts to emerge from the techno world in the past couple years, Demdike Stare seem to be the most indefinable. The word “techno” hardly captures their sound, but then neither do the words of Demdike Stare’s other constituent parts (“library,” “hip-hop,” “world”). This is, of course, by design, as a phone call with member Sean Canty revealed to me earlier this year. Demdike Stare have created a world of darkness all their own, synthesizing the combined record collections and analog machines of Canty and Miles Whittaker into four full lengths that have earned lavish praise from both the usual spots as well as curveballs such as NPR. As musics seeped in the occult remain the sound du jour for some corners, Demdike Stare’s bewitching identity gains authenticity from its originality and unapologetic atmosphere, as well as its creator’s Northern English heritage. But lest you think that doom and gloom is all there is to Demdike Stare, our chat with Canty touched on the group’s mix CDs, their incessant record-digging habits, and the possibility of a Nu-Groove style Demdike Stare record.
You’re mostly known for buying very obscure records from all parts of the world. How did you get started with this? Did you have people you met that sort of showed you where to go and what to look for, or did you develop this skill on your own?
Sean Canty: Yeah, talking for me personally, I come from a hip-hop background; from buying rap records from A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul. It wasn’t long before I wanted to find out what samples they’d used. It’s just a kind of an organic process, I think. You get to James Brown records, then you start finding Eugene McDaniels records, they’d sample Polish jazz records. And then once you start getting these key titles from your favorite hip-hop groups you can then carve your own little way. I wanted to make rap records. I had an SP-1200 and I had all the drum machines that my favorite hip-hop producers were using. So, I wanted to buy the same breaks as them, but then, as you start developing yourself you want your own personality, you want your own identity, so you start looking to other countries.
There are key people, like Andy who I worked with at Finders Keepers. He was a big influence, I used to go and see him DJ in hip-hop clubs and he was playing Black Sabbath records or Webster Lewis records to hip-hop kids. So there were certain people like him who were definitely going against the grain. That was my kind of my thing; through hip-hop, that’s how I got into buying kind of buying obscure music and looking further afield for breaks.
How did you initially hook up with Miles, and how did the Demdike Stare project get started?
Well me and Miles have known each other for maybe 15, 20 years. I went to school with his younger brother and we’re from a little town in Lancashire. So I knew Miles was always DJing and buying records. And before you know it, we became friends and for a lot, a lot of years, we’d be constantly calling each other and hipping each other to certain records. I’d been playing him jazz, or rock, or soundtrack music, or library music and he’d being playing me Carl Craig or Basic Channel records. So we had this kind of relationship of sharing each other’s discoveries. I was really influenced by the U.S. noise records like Wolf Eyes, Earth or SunnO))), things like that. I had a lot of music, especially library records and musique concrete records, which were sounding very similar to these new American bands so I was just like, “Look, I’m really eager to do a horror soundtrack to a film. It doesn’t exist, but I’ve got all these kind of records which I can’t really DJ with and they’re not particularly right for a hip-hop thing, so we should pool our kind of influence together and make like a noise/horror sound together.” And that was how the whole Demdike Stare thing started.
The first thing that strikes someone when they first buy a Demdike Stare record is the horror or the occult aspect of the music. Is this the driving aspect of Demdike Stare? Could Demdike Stare ever make a record that wasn’t steeped in horror, or things like that?
Yeah, yeah. I think the whole project kind of reacts on our record buying habits, so the initial idea to do the first Demdike records came from a few really key records. There was Maniac soundtrack by Jay Chattaway, which is one of my favorite New York Grindhouse movies. It’s just a dark electronic record, and it was sounds like that that I was really checking for at that time. But you know, now we’re buying a lot of European jazz music, so hopefully that’ll kind of reflect how the new record sounds. And I’m going through a big thing at the moment of buying 80′s New York house music, like Rheji Burrell related, or Nu-Groove sounding things, and just tapping deeper into that level. So we could do a house record next.
How does any given track come about? Do you hear a sample and get inspired, or do you have an idea and then search to find potential samples that match that idea?
Well, yeah, it’s a mixture of the two. We could listen to something by [Ennio] Morricone and we might want to try to replicate that feeling, not necessarily by sampling his music, but by saying, “Right, let’s see if, by using the machines, we can come up with that feeling.” Or we could get inspiration from a certain stab of a concrete record and then develop something from there. Something like Forest of Evil was about going down the routes of Krautrock and long, drawn out tracks.
Another striking thing about Demdike Stare are your visuals. Your album covers are very definite presence and also when you play live, you tend to have some visuals with you. How do you go about creating the visuals and how do they play off the music?
I work closely with a friend of mine called Johnny Redmond, who’s big on giallo or poliziesco, which are Italian crime and drama movies. Dario Argento is a key person, and the way we work with the visuals is very similar to the way to the way we’d work with a sample based track. It’s taking certain parts of a movie that we really like, and having a palate of different footage from a whole load of movies, just like you’d have a kick from that record, or a snare from another record. It’s pretty much visually sampling. For me personally, it’s a key thing because when we go out live, we’re kind of running through bits of gear and laptops and we’re kind of doing live sampling. The visuals are just to make it more interesting for the audience really, so they can lock in, so they can see something other than just two dudes behind a couple of laptops.
Are those visually created before hand?
Okay, so they don’t really correspond with what you’re necessarily doing on stage?
We just have a palate of bits of footage and we’ve got software where we can manipulate these loops, so we can improvise and play for as long as we want really. So we can, to an extent, react to the music or to each other, but we’ve only got a certain amount of things to be showing.
And then what about the record covers? Do you guys design them yourselves?
They’re designed by Andy Votel, who I work with at Finders Keepers. And that’s basically a thing of him being on our wavelength. Living in the north of England we’re from a town that’s very famous for witchcraft, so it’s something we’ve grown up with. Like at school, you have these drawings of witches or whatever, so it’s just a part of us, really. We’re not particularly into witchcraft, it’s just something that’s always been there, just as much as rave culture has been in the UK and I just love the visual aspects of that world. And it worked very well with the music, that kind of imagery.
Do you work with him on the covers? I know for the Liberation Through Hearing cover there were six images together, and there were also six tracks on the LP…
They’re not at all related. I kind of get fascinated by those kind of record sleeves where people think there is a story to it, but there isn’t, you know what I mean? Like the mystery tour. I like the idea of people trying to figure things out, but there isn’t really anything to figure out. And I’ve rated Andy for a long time for his sleeves and such. He’s just someone you can leave be, he’d hear the music and then he’d come up with his own visual interpretation of our music.
In a lot of your records there are these really low frequencies, and hearing them on a proper system the music has this huge presence in the room. Is the presence that the music has important to you?
We just treat each track as it is. The track “Matilda’s Dream” is a kind of homage to old school ambient records. It’s just whatever fits right with that particular track, if it needs sub-bass, or it needs a kind of a claustrophobic feel to it. The way we work is all improvising, it’s quite difficult to explain. Sometimes we sit down and think we should write music like this, and then there are other times where we’re just kind of going with the flow, if you will. With the dark side of things and real kind of sub-bass feel, it’s just trying to get the feeling of maybe what SunnO))) are trying to do. Just testing, having people react. But yeah, there’s not a mission to be making that kind of music, it’s just whatever works at the time.
Some words that are frequently tagged on to your music are “hauntology,” and increasingly, and I feel almost silly saying it, “witchhouse.” Do you see any relation between your music and these tags that people have been throwing around?
Yeah, it’s mad, because to be honest with you, I’m kind of stuck in buying old records, so the whole thing of “hauntology,” or… I don’t think I’ve heard what “witchhouse” is. I see certain things on Boomkat and websites like that, but I’ve not actually heard any of these bands, to be honest, so it’s very difficult to even have an opinion. Am I bothered that way, tagged with that term? I think it’s a cool term, “witchhouse.” But I’m not in any way influenced by that; it’s probably just journalists trying to kind of pigeon-hole groups together to create a movement, you know. I’m fine with it, it’s not something that bothers me. A friend of mine who does stuff under the Caretaker, I think he was a key person for that type of thing, as well as the whole “hauntology” thing. But you know, I don’t actually know what the term “hauntology” means and I haven’t really heard what these “witchhouse” acts are like. It’s not that I’m not listening to this music, but my heads just got too much going on buying old records, do you know what I mean? And wanting to create a Demdike sound; I’m more obsessed with that, really.
You guys have also put out a couple of mix CDs. What do you want to show with the mix CDs? Do they shed light on some of the things that you were listening to during that period of production?
Yeah. Basically, me and Miles are really big fans of the art of the DJ mix. I’ve always been totally inspired by breakbeat mix tapes from like DJ Cherrystones from London. Compilations are really good for hearing music you’ve never heard before, so the art of the mixtape is a kind of a similar thing. It’s our way of representing that side of things. We’re both DJs, we both DJ in clubs and stuff. So we’re not just a production outfit, we do a monthly night together in Manchester where we’ll both just play everything from jazz music to baroque records, to house, to kind of ambient records or soul. It was an interesting format we did with the mix CDs. A lot of the records we used on the mixes we were doing re-edits of, so it was trying to kind of blur the line between production and the mix as well. In someways it could probably sound like a hip-hop instrumental, what we’ve done to some of the jazz records and stuff, but it’s just our thing of keeping the mixtape era alive. It’s something that we’ve both been inspired by for many, many years.
The big release right now is the Tryptych CD boxset. Do you feel that the three LPs you released in 2010 have a deeper connection between them, aside from being released under the same circumstances?
Well I think it just come together naturally as the Tryptych thing. It definitely works as a whole piece, but there was no bigger reason behind it. Each individual record was just an individual piece of work. But yeah, because they were only vinyl only releases, this kind of packaging was thought up. But each of those pieces were worked as an individual piece of music.
It seems that some of the more techno aspects of the project have been reduced since Symbiosis. Is that just a reflection of your buying habits?
Yeah, I think so. Because the next record we could do could be a 4/4 thing. It just depends on where we’re at at that moment. I just think it keeps things healthy because then you just become a bit more unpredictable, which I think is a good thing, that people can’t be like, “Alright, they do that.” It’s good to be treating each day on its own, not thinking into the future. It keeps you on your toes, and it’s just a better way of working. But the reason maybe something like Voices of Dust is different to Symbiosis is whatever record we were listening to in that moment in time.
What’s up next for you, for Miles, for Demdike Stare?
Well, we’re writing at the moment. The Tryptych just came out, so now we’ve just been kind of writing, and we’ve been doing a lot of shows. A lot of shows are coming in now for the summer and the next few months. I think Miles is actually got a solo record coming out, very very soon. And do you know we do the Pre-Cert label?
Yeah, tell me a little bit about that…
Well that’s a label run by me, Miles, and Andy Votel. So we’ve got a lot of plans for this year to be releasing other artists, like friends of ours or things we’ve heard. It’s basically a platform so that if we hear anything by other people we can cut those records out. In the near future, us three could work on a project together, or we could maybe reissue an old piece of music. I’m a big VHS video collector. I love the old pre-cert tapes from the 80′s and 70′s, so it’s kind of homage to that world. So that’s probably going to keep us busy this year also. But I think, basically, it’s just gonna keep going. We’ve still got a lot of ideas, so we’ll just get the music happen.
Did you like the process of putting out music only on LP?
Oh yeah, you know we’re both record collectors, we’re both vinyl lovers. It’s funny, I was talking to Miles, and I love hearing music on CD. I collect records, and I’ve got thousands and thousands of them, but there’s something about our music that’s really nice to hear it in the Tryptych way. With the extra tracks, it’s kind of really good car music or driving music, you know what I mean? So I love the format of vinyl, just because I do, but I’m really, really happy with the way it sounds on CD as well.
So you think whatever comes out will probably be on both formats?
Definitely, definitely. Especially since the Pre-Cert thing, that’s kind of like a vinyl only thing, just to kind of keep it going.
Are you planning to come back to New York and do more Demdike Stare shows?
Yeah, I think so. There was talk of us doing Unsound this time, but it’s not going to happen. It’s just, we’ve just got a lot of things happening; it’s just a time thing. We do really want to get back for WFMU Record Fair. That’s a key thing, when we go on trips, to get a little bit of digging in, when we’re doing the shows and stuff.
Where have you gone recently where you found some really good stuff?
The other week we did a show with Hype Williams in Athens and there’s some very, very good record shops in Greece. We didn’t have much time in the shops, but we found a record shop that was great; I was definitely ticking off some of my want list. And it was weird, because I was buying a lot of U.S. records there, a lot of really good U.S. jazz stuff. And it’s mad, because me and Andy once played in Turkey, and I’m a big Turkish record collector. I was finding some amazing stuff there, and Andy was like, “Wait until you go to Greece, you’ll find good stuff there.” I was there the other week, and I’m going back. Not for a show or anything, I just need to go back there because I found some really good stuff and there was a lot of Greek records and it’s something I would like to tap into.
Kind of like bouzouki music?
Yeah, any field recordings, anything from kind of street bands or just studio based things. I’ve got a really love for, I suppose, world psychedelia, or oddball records. With Demdike Stare, a lot of my big influences are kind of hybrid records, you know? I really want to reflect that into the Demdike Stare sound, of like, something you can’t really put your finger on it. There are a lot of influences in there. There’s a techno influence in there, there’s a hip-hop influence in there in the process of sampling, or there could be a hypnotic kind of Krautrock feel to something; and I like to hear that as well in the records that I buy. I like to hear a Turkish record that uses a DX7 synthesizer, you know what I mean? Or hearing Pakistani records which are using drum machines. I’m very much into things crashing into each other, which on paper would be very, very wrong, but it just becomes very, very right. When I say that Demdike Stare is reflecting what records we’re buying at that moment in time, it’s those key things. We’re hearing German jazz music and it’s kind of got blues influences hitting against weird time signatures. That’s what excites me, and that’s kind of what I want to do to other people as well. It’s just trying to work something out.
So I guess you want Demdike Stare to be like a project that is almost indefinable?
I want people to be excited about the music in the same way that I’m excited about hearing new hybrid music, or hearing music I’ve never heard before, either old or new. And I’m very, very much into the kind of idea of identity and moving things forward. I think both of us really, Miles and myself, come from two very big genres which kind of became stale (techno music and rap). It became a formula, where people were either sounding like Basic Channel or DJ Premier. I just want to keep people on their toes, and make something that they can’t narrow down. That’s why it’s important for me to do something like an ambient record like “Matilda’s Dream,” against something like Forest of Evil. There are two totally different influences there, like I said to you. “Matilda’s Dream” is definitely nodding to 80′s library music or something like Global Communication, and Forest of Evil is kind of Krautrock, or 80s jazz music. So our next records could go down the “Matilda’s Dream” path of doing live, beautiful, soundscape type stuff.
It’s good people are reacting to it, because it just gives you the energy to really push forward. It seems like an exciting time at the moment, where you can kind of do what you want. You’ve got record stores like Honest Jon’s, or Boomkat, and they look for different music, so it feels good to be really pushing people sonically. Everything’s a blur now, there are so many different sounds. You go on Boomkat or something and there’ll be like, these witchhouse records next to like old Finders Keepers records; it’s just a really exciting time. There’s an age thing; we’re mid-30s, so we’ve listened to a lot of music. You just feel like, “I don’t care anymore, I’m just gonna do what I wanna do.”
You still really believe in record stores?
Yeah. I just love the idea of rolling your sleeves up and getting in there and discovering old music or new music. If you’re a filmmaker or an artist, it’s really important to be inspired for your work to move forward. I think the more things you see or hear or read, the stronger you’re going to be. I do buy records off the Internet, and I buy records off eBay, but it’s crazy the amount of stuff that’s out there. Especially the samples used in the Demdike records, they were just dollar records from Canada or something. They’re not particularly rare records. I buy obscure music, not specifically for any value or anything, but sometimes I want to own something and I might have to pay for that. With Demdike Stare it could be a snare hit, which… just the way it’s been recorded or something could trigger off a whole idea. So I really need record stores to feed my habit, my inspiration.
Would you say that Demdike Stare would die with the death of record store?
Oh god. I dunno. We’ve got so many between us, thousands and thousands, it’s just kind of a like a whole world, you know? I’m constantly going back to these records I bought when I was 20 that I took weird chances on. We’re really inspired by Wolfgang Dauner at the moment, a German jazz piano player. I bought Wolfgang Dauner records when I was 20 and sometimes it takes a bit for the penny to drop with certain records, you know? Sometimes I was a little bit young for certain things, for certain records I’ve bought. Something like Morricone was like a household name. He’s done so many kind of classic movie soundtracks. But now, I really get it. I really get what is good about this man. There are still enough records in the archive to keep going, to be inspired by and for us to carry on.