Matt O’Brien follows in a long and proud tradition of British techno eccentrics. Like Cristian Vogel and Neil Landstrumm before him, O’Brien views electronic music through an alternative prism to most of his peers. A punk band member before he was bitten by the techno bug, Matt brings a rawness to his dance floor productions on the sporadic but always consistent Off-Key Industries label. Matt’s imprint has put out just five releases in as many years, but it has also spawned the Limited sub-label. Matt has also brought his grimy techno production touch to remixes for Subliminal Kid, Efdemin and Roberto Bosco and has also ventured beyond the Off-Key stable for releases on Rekids, Platzhirsch Schallplatten and most recently Curle. However, his dalliances with other outlets remain nothing more than occasional. At a time when the number of weekly releases is staggeringly high, O’Brien’s erratic release schedule, hardware-based production approach and gritty techno sound are refreshingly old school. In addition to our chat with the producer he’s generously mixed together our 64th exclusive podcast, more than an hour of expertly mixed house and techno to start your week.
LWE Podcast 64: Matt O’Brien (65:42)
01. Beaumont Hannant, “Art of Stealing” (Swag Remix) [GPR]
02. Schatrax, “The Almighty” [Schatrax]
03. Ali Nasser, “Stars of Ra” [Soweso]
04. Matt O’Brien & Audiostatic, “Sepia” [Off-Key Industries Ltd]
05. STL, “Silent State” [Smallville Records]
06. Skatebård, “Naar Det Rykker I Ringen” [Luna Flicks]
07. DJ Koze, “I Want To Sleep” [International Records Recordings]
08. Bodycode, “The Centre of Time” [Yore Records]
09. Floating Points, “Shark Chase” [Eglo Records]
10. Alton Miller, “Inner8″ (Gerd’s No Vox Mix) [Clone]
11. Oracy, “Bass Mood” [Mojuba]
12. JC Freaks, “Source” [wandering]
13. Dave Aju, “Be Like The Sun” [Circus Company]
14. Dexter, “1992” (Vocal Version) [Dolly]
15. Extrawelt, “Simpleton” [Cocoon Recordings]
16. Samuli Kemppi, “Suunta” [Komisch]
17. DJ Koze, “Blume Der Nacht” [Pampa Records]
18. Matt O’Brien, “Dodaso” [Off-Key Industries]
What is your background as a DJ/producer: how did you get interested in electronic music?
Matt O’Brien: I started off in bands when I was younger, mainly playing indie and post-punk stuff. I played guitar and sang. Well, shouted really. I was in an art college band and we all dropped out to live on the dole in Southend and tried to be rock stars. I did that for a few years and slowly absorbed the rave culture that was going on all around me. I railed against it at first but then one day I took a pill in a club and it all made sense. After that it was a question of building up a studio and learning a new way to write music. I started off with an Atari ST and some cheap synths and built it up from there. I’d been writing for years before having the confidence to release anything. I was always far too stoned. Starting Off-key coincided with me giving up weed.
Were you interested in other sounds like grunge or industrial? The reason I ask is because a lot of your productions are raw and noisy — it seems like there are other influences outside techno/house.
Oh yeah, absolutely. Not so much industrial, more so Krautrock / post-punk and reggae — mainly Can, King Tubby and most of all The Fall. Mark E Smith is really the only musical hero I have. I think he’s a genius, albeit quite a pissed genius these days. I never got into industrial. I do try now and again, but I just don’t get it. All I hear is a funkless dirge. Maybe I’m listening to the wrong stuff. I feel the same about all that industrial inspired techno doing the rounds. Don’t get it. I’m not sure if my production sounds noisy. Raw, certainly. I think it’s important to retain the human element. I’m trying to capture a performance and am learning to leave in more of the mistakes and imperfections.
According to your Discogs entry, you were in a punk band in the early 90s – truth, mistake or pure fiction?!
It’s true, sort of – although I wasn’t in the band mentioned in Discogs. In the small Welsh town where I grew up there were two punk bands – one was called The Manic Street Preachers, who went on to have a lot of success, and the other was called Fuck The Cross, who didn’t. I was very briefly a member of Fuck The Cross. I played one of those Yamaha electronic drum machines with the drum pads. It lasted about a week.
You’re from the UK. Do you think that we’ve seen the extent of its “golden” techno age in the 90s, or is there a new wave of producers coming up?
Yeah, probably. I can’t see a new wave of the likes that we saw years ago and why would there be? The UK’s strength has always been in mutating and evolving new sounds and genres, which is what we’re seeing now with the whole UK bass movement.
Do you think that the support is there in clubs in London and the UK generally for techno?
There seems to be, although it’s not as strong as it was. There are a number of nights in London that book good artists. The appetite for hearing up and coming artists also seems to be there, although it can be a risk for promoters to put them on so opportunities to hear them are few and far between. The margins between a having a successful night and losing enough money to put the night out of business seem to be slim.
On Off-Key’s website you state that the label does not want any “trendy haircut techno” demos (or words to that effect). Do you feel that the popularity of image-based mnml has been to the detriment of techno music?
I did that to dissuade people inundating me with crap demos and it did work. I still get sent some inappropriate stuff but not much these days. One guy shared his demos with over 8,000 people on Soundcloud! I mean, come on. You have to be a bit cleverer than that. Do your homework. I don’t think that mnml has had a negative impact on techno. Hopefully all of the bandwagon jumpers have moved on to bongo house now. I guess for a brief time techno was almost cool by association, which always made me feel uncomfortable. Techno should be underground. Techno artists shouldn’t be poncing around sipping champagne. They should drink something earthy and substantial, like Guinness!
By the same token, do you feel that the reaction to mnml was counterproductive and that we now have an ultra-serious techno scene, devoid of humour and fun?
I’m not sure anything has changed, techno’s always been a bit like that I think. I don’t know why. A lot of the people I know who are into techno have a keen sense of humour, just not when it comes to music.
Do you rate any other UK techno labels, or do you feel that the European continent and in particular Germany has dominated techno in recent years? Do you see anyone in the UK, producers or labels, as sharing your approach?
The first few Seldom Felt releases were alright and I’ve picked up a few of the Horizontal Ground ones. Blueprint also still seems to be doing the business. Producer wise, I like a few things that MLZ has done and it’s nice to see some of the old guard like Aubrey and Schatrax getting some props these days. I’m not sure if anyone is sharing my approach, I don’t know what my approach is. Very haphazard I guess. I don’t treat it like a career. Germany certainly has dominated in recent years and it’s easy to see why. There is a real love for it there and they do things right. Whenever I play there it’s organised professionally and the artists are treated very well. I’ve played more times in Germany than in any other country and the crowd are usually clued up and appreciative.
I like the way that Off-Key has been running since 2005, but has only put out five EPs. Is this deliberate? Are you a slow worker or do you feel that there is way too much music being released at the moment?
Firstly, in the past I’ve been guilty of being a terrible procrastinator. Also, having a full time job and a young family doesn’t leave much time for working in the studio. I’m getting better at finishing things quicker but even then it’s a lot of work getting a release together. I have one friend who does the artwork, another who writes the press releases and my girlfriend helps with promotion. Other than that I do everything myself. It’s a lot of work. I do also think that there’s too much stuff being released as well – which wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that most of it is banal.
You recently put out a split EP with Peter Van Hoesen on Curle. How did you hook up with the label? What do you make of the techno coming from Belgium at the moment, from labels like Curle, Time to Express, Mowar etc? Do you see an affinity with them?
I did a remix of Efdemin for Curle a few years ago and kept in touch with Tom (DJ Fader who does the A&R). I recently sent him a track which I didn’t think fit on Off-Key and thankfully he liked it enough to release it. I’ve also recently finished a three track EP for them, which will be my first full EP on a label other than my own. Similarly I’ve been in touch with Franco from Mowar for years, ever since I heard some of the releases he put out on his previous label, Aesthetik. Both Mowar and Curle have put out some strong releases recently and yeah, I do feel an affinity with them. It’s strange how that link has come about, I’ve never even been to Belgium! I’ve been asked to play there a few times but could never make the dates. Hopefully I’ll make it over there soon.
You have done a few remixes lately; do you approach them differently to original productions?
It’s something I have struggled with in the past, although I’m pleased with the remixes I did for Subliminal Kid and Roberto Bosco. I do try and retain something of the original although it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve turned down more remixes that I’ve accepted over the years. I need to feel something in the original track.
How and where was the mix recorded?
In my front room after putting my son to bed, with a glass of red wine on the side. For this mix I tried using Traktor but I’ve gone back to using vinyl now. It doesn’t feel right pissing about clicking buttons. I thought digital DJing would make it easier to find the tracks I was looking for. I can never find the right record because my vinyl is too disorganised. I actually found it harder finding what I wanted, having to scroll through a list on a screen. With vinyl there’s a visual cue and an emotional connection that I missed. I’m not knocking digital DJing, I don’t care how it’s delivered as long as the music is good, it’s just not for me.
Is it representative of what you play out?
Well I haven’t really DJed out for ages as I’ve concentrated on playing live for the last five years or so. Having said that, I’d bosh it out a bit more if I were playing in a club. There’d probably be more Relief and Dance Mania records!
I like the way that the mix twists and turns from deep and reflective, almost old school to noisy and squelchy and then back to mysterious and tripped out. Was it intentional to cover a lot of ground with the mix?
Yeah, for sure. I like mixes that take you on a journey and that convey different moods. I can’t listen to an hour of the same type of music, or of the same mood. I have a very short attention span.
Are you fan of playing mainly newer stuff or are you the kind of DJ who like to dig deep in his collection to unearth older material?
“I think it’s important to play new tracks to support all the labels out there keeping things going but not at the expense of all the great stuff that’s been released before. There is so much stuff out there that was released 15 or 20 years ago that still sounds fresh today. These days I only buy new records if they really blow me away.
You play live as well, apparently with a load of hardware. Do you prefer live shows to DJing?
Yeah, I do enjoy it most of the time but I’m careful with the gigs I choose to do. I only play live a few times a year but when I do play I try and give it my all. Every time I play out it’s a different set. I have my core tracks but I change the order and try new ideas and maybe bring back older stuff I haven’t played for a while. I need to keep it fresh, to keep it interesting for myself so I can get into it. I don’t know how people do it all weekend every weekend. It must get on their tits. With regards to my live setup, I used to use more hardware when I first started but my studio keeps changing and it’s not easy to take my current equipment out in clubs. Doing this podcast has reinvigorated my interest in DJing so maybe I’ll have some more DJ gigs in future, I dunno. Will have to see what happens.
Finally, what are you up to release-wise for the next few months?
The current Off-Key Limited release is still in the shops. It’s got a few old tracks on there that I wrote with other people, including “Sepia” which features in the podcast. Then the new EP on Curle is out in January, I think. Other than that I have no plans at present, I need to find time to spend in the studio.