Allow us to give you a specific lay of London’s clubland, nine years ago. The dominant big room sound in the capital is stripped down, dry and dull. Prime, a vitally important distributor for homegrown talent (and who counted Ali Wells amongst their junior staff), has unexpectedly gone belly-up a couple of years prior, leaving a long trail of unreleased records and effectively strangling the oxygen from the Ealing and Romford set. Bangface, ever the reliable facilitators of carnage, has deviated on a tangent, allowing the usual jungle/acid/electro hybrids to be subsumed by a profundity of hyper-accelerated gabber and breakcore. Some nights only twenty or so people are turning up. Techno, basically, is in the doldrums. So what’s the logical thing to do?
Start a techno night, of course.
James ‘Tec’ Baker and Luke ‘Handsfree’ Hansbury founded Plex in 2006, and have steered the ship for long enough that the choppy waters have mostly quelled. Their first party – a sell-out – brought together a meld of tribal techno, cut-up hip-hop, live acid and a joint hero in headliner Luke Vibert; their third party bombed (they chuckle about it now). Stability was hard fought: for many years they rode the oscillation between both ends of the spectrum.
“There have been times where we’ve taken an absolute savaging,” winces James. “Losing several grand really kicks you in the nuts when you’re 26 years old and have bills to pay. You come away questioning whether it’s worth it–and then hear people telling you “that was the best Plex party I’ve ever been to.””
Having started with an MO to keep genre-splicing and live performance at the heart, several key nights – including Dopplereffekt’s first English club booking; and a brave cross-pollination between the still-divergent poles of Berlin techno and the post-dubstep diaspora – paid dividends, anchoring the night.
A fifth birthday celebration, spreading across all three rooms of Elephant & Castle’s Corsica Studios in tandem with likeminded nights Colony and Machine, felt like the promised land. These chummy team-ups have become more frequent as the years have gone on, with experimental outpost BleeD a regular collaborator. “They’re our mates, so there’s comparatively little ego involved,” grins Luke. “Although I wouldn’t say there’s no ego – we are promoters after all.”
“There was no spice; it was just functional techno for punters to gub Es to”
How did enough regeneration occur for this sanguinity to set in? To get a proper read on how good we have it at present, it’s important to keep mid-00s context in mind. “Detroit was dying on its arse,” remembers James, and a rigid professionalism had set in with the advent of the rising Ostgut behemoths. As part-time promoters with dayjobs – and, in James’ case, a daughter – they “don’t fuck about” with the vicelike grip of agents unable to detach passion from profession. “We’re interested in putting on the music we like and giving our friends a platform to play,” he states gruffly.
To compound matters, the booming popularity of Adam Beyer‘s Drumcode had inadvertently stifled creativity across the board: promoters had their esoteric tendencies hemmed in, pandering to fairweather fans; the music became subsequently more staid, distilled to a bare-bones reduction; going out in the capital had lost its spark. “It was a race to the bottom to what people thought was the epitome of the style,” recants Luke, “until suddenly everyone went, “okay fuck this: this is boring.” There was no spice; it was just functional techno for punters to gub Es to.”
Luke draws for an example of a Houndstooth x Leisure System party last November to parse the demonstrable progress. The night set a tough-as-nails Perc against the retro-leaning hardcore bombast of Akkord and Special Request, “alongside Objekt playing absolutely fucking ridiculous techno” (making swandiving hand gestures to underscore the point.)
The Plex pair are excitable chaps. Both are evidently in thrall to, and derive charge from, those revelatory experiences that can only truly happen on a dancefloor – even when confronted by a curveball. As Luke has it, “by virtue of being in a city where there is such a high concentration of clubs and subcultures, you’re going to be exposed to some far-out crap that you may not particularly like, but it will inform your musical education. You’ll stand there thinking, “I haven’t actually made anything…but I can probably do better than that.””
“Lately a lot of rich musical stuff has fed back into it” he elucidates, referring primarily to the splinters embedded by dubstep’s fracturing, resulting in “some worldies coming out right now.” Happa, for one, is a breath of fresh air. “He’s coming from no background, and is not referencing anybody particularly. He’s just making astoundingly brilliant techno.” He proceeds to go into impressive depth about the technicalities of Happa’s productions; I nod along politely but am admittedly way out of my depth.
“Once you get that injection of somewhat contextless youth its almost unstoppable”
It’s an interesting paradox: straying further away from expectations of any given signifier can often lead back round to more of the same. Scottish duo Forward Strategy Group are a case in point. Patrick Walker and ‘Bleaching Agent Al’ came into first contact discussing Steve Bicknell – founder of pre-Millennial mainstay LOST – on a forum. Al, a fan of experimental sound design and Daphne Oram, was beginning to dabble more heavily in techno; Patrick was deeply jaded.
“Venues didn’t want to put techno nights on because they knew they wouldn’t sell enough beer,” Al sighs. Renting prohibitively expensive equipment like multichannel mixing desks and 909s didn’t help; nor did the navel-gazing purism “that came to define British techno 15-odd years ago.” The crumbling of boundaries helped get him back on board: “It’s suddenly all interconnected, so there’s a healthy range. There’s more infrastructure now to support it.”
Patrick reckons a resurgence was “always going to happen. Whenever the kids discover some ‘new’ culture in their lap, it’s like a tidal wave. Once you get that injection of somewhat contextless youth it’s almost unstoppable.” Working with young people in a studio, his exposure to, and tolerance of, fads is greater than most. “At the moment, one of the big things they’e coming to me with is something called ‘Night Rave’, sped-up pop music with chipmunk vocals over the top. Basically, old hardcore.”
“To them it’s fresh and exciting; to my ears it sounds like utter shit! It just depends on your circumstances and how you view that as an individual, really. I try not to over-think it nowadays. It would drive me mad,” he says with a hearty laugh.
Forward Strategy Group fit into a rich lineage of artists who straddle the serious-silly axis with glee. Much like 80s progenitors Psychic TV/Coil, and latterly Surgeon and Regis‘ robe-bedecked performances as British Murder Boys, they have a canny knack at switching between dead- and cross-eyed as the mood takes. Patrick sees an antecedent in “Throbbing Gristle, and their attempts at catchy bubblegum pop. Everybody makes out how it was this kinda dark music, and a lot of it was hilarious. We have these menacing sounding track titles, but really we’re having a lot of fun with it.”
Al – a man intimately familiar with splattering together these dual impulses, given his moonlighting alongside Truss in the rabblerousing (and now sadly defunct) Blacknecks – is in full agreement. “Continental artists can be fastidiously minded. It’s definitely a UK trait to poke two fingers up at things that are a bit too serious.”
This country’s particulars – both structurally and in a pervading mindset – go some length to explaining Plex’s ability to withstand headwinds for nearly a decade. It’s something Luke has evidently given considerable thought to: “Because of the closeness of British society – the weather; the compactness of living; the post-war cynicism bequeathed from previous generations – people generally disrespect pretension and boundaries. It bears itself out in our attitude toward music.”
The clearest examples came in the 80s-turn-90s with the twin evils of acid house and rave’s mutation into jungle scaring the living shit out of middle England in quick succession. Parallels can be drawn to the post-industrial flattening of Detroit, or reunified Berlin’s mass sociopolitical upheaval – different ballparks in many respects, but all “exciting access portals that created an international conversation,” posits Luke.
“Having so many decent parties in a commutable distance is a double-edged sword”
A nagging question now is whether another burst bubble looms just over the horizon. The boom in the capital’s techno scene is an unquestionable positive, but, as with the last true peak, you can truly end up with too much of a good thing. To a certain extent, Luke feels “things are at risk of becoming more segregated again. People are getting fervently into techno in the same way we were when we got started.” Ironically, techno’s surging momentum may prove detrimental to the eclecticism that lit a fire underneath it in the first place.
“It encourages punters to be slightly less tolerant of unusual shit on the dancefloor because they know they can just go and find something else amendable to them elsewhere. You need to pull out all the stops to get your maximum bill.” He pauses, doting on a potential repeat of the problems that tripped London up a decade ago. “Having so many decent parties in a commutable distance is a double-edged sword.”
The outlook still remains extremely bright, on balance. In recent months the Plex name has cropped up at Fabric and the sadly-shuttered Plastic People; a full Bloc stage next month promises the delights of Egyptian Lover, Space Dimension Controller and Clouds amongst others. Plus, there is a conscious awareness in both camps that too much fretting and philosophising is inherently a little silly anyway. “We’re all kind of aware that even though we think of ourselves as ‘artists’ and all that, the endgame is people going into a room and taking a loads of drugs,” grins Patrick. “You’re trying to be really clever with what you’re doing, and then you’re going out and getting shitfaced.”
It is, after all, only techno. James – a man so inextricably invested in the stuff that he wears it tattooed on his right forearm – sums it up succinctly. “The really good thing about it is that the framework is so minimal. The only thing you particularly need to define techno is a kick drum running at around 130-something BPM.”
“All the additional stuff: that’s what makes it interesting.”
—– – —–
Next Tuesday, we collaborate with Plex for a Tuesday knees-up to showcase some of the artists who’ve come to represent its dynamic spirit. Ahead of the broadcast, we had Plex’s founding fathers profile them below.
ALSO [Appleblim + Second Storey]
Luke: We had Al Tourettes play at a pretty far-out party that we did a while ago with I-F and a guy called Headcleaner who does modular-synth shit. He played for us and he was so fucking good, playing with drumsticks on a drum-pad and totally nailing it. I’ve always loved Al’s music, so him getting together with Laurie – who’s music I’ve always loved – is fucking brilliant. As a collaborator, he’s so strong. Laurie’s one of those people who’s able to pull amazing shit out of the people he collaborates with. The music they’re making together is wicked.
JoeFarr and J. Tijn
Luke: JoeFarr and J. Tijn are two of the most exciting techno people out there. They’re making stone-cold bangers. Every single thing I’ve heard from them has been amazing. They make techno that isn’t boring and dry – there’s so much character to it.
Forward Strategy Group
Luke: We’ve had them play twice. They played at our Sandwell District party, and they were amazing. All of their recorded music is wicked – absolutely every single bit of it.
James: I was very heavily into his former outfit with Andrew Weatherall, Two Lone Swordsmen. Soon as anything came out on Warp or on Emissions, it was bought on sight. They’ve got some little known albums that came out on Emissions. Stockwell Steppas is a personal favourite.
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