Photo: Lakker, Marie Weikopf © für BLN.FM
Few producers have the stylistic scope that Lakker do. Their releases span across some of the most important labels in electronic music; R&S, Blueprint, Stroboscopic Artefacts and more. This should really be no surprise as Lakker are not so much a duo trying to tap into ‘one sound’ but instead explorers of electronic music in all its forms. There are hints towards the ‘golden era’ of UK IDM, early 00s dubstep, as well as Birmingham techno and early rave. What comes across so strongly in Lakker’s output is that they are true scholars of the canon of electronic music. No history is omitted, and no territory unexplored.
Their latest album, Tundra took a surprising turn by incorporating some classically inspired choral timbres, rediscovering their sound in yet another guise. In light of this release, R&S’ subsequent 12” of remixes not to mention their performance at Berlin Atonal this year, we caught up with duo members Dara Smith and Ian McDonald earlier this month.
So how have things been for you since the release of Tundra? It’s been quite a while since the release of Ruido with your travels and various other projects…
I: things have been great since the release of Tundra, thanks! We’re so happy with how it’s been received. People seem to be really feeling it, which are very grateful for. We had been thinking about it for a while. We didn’t want to do a second album until the time was right. When things started kicking off for us a few years back we decided to focus on EPs and 12”s for a while to explore our sound a bit. Another album was always on the cards, but not until we felt the sound was there and the time was right. Around the release of our Mountain Divide EP we felt that time was at hand, so we started thinking about the album seriously then.
How do you go about performing live these days? Tundra has a lot of vocal work on the album, have you ever tried performing your stuff with live vocals?
I:Our current live show is an audio-visual one. We both take care of different aspects of the audio live and Dara also runs the visuals live from onstage. We try to keep the tracks as close to the recorded versions as possible with enough room to change and develop things to keep it interesting for the audience and ourselves. The set-up is simple, two laptops MIDI- synced, and some controllers.
We’ve never done a live set with vocalists as Lakker, but we did do a show a couple of years back with Soundset, who were a vocal and string ensemble based in Dublin. It was a partly improvised, partly written show. It was a really enjoyable experience working with voices in a live context like that, but it’s not yet something we’ve fit into the Lakker show. We used to also do a collaborative project called ‘Jenny & the Deadites’ with MC Jenny Branagan (now with Melbourne based darkwave band ‘Nuns’), which was super fun (there’s an old Myspace page knocking around somewhere!), and we have some more vocal collabs planned, so we’re open to the idea in the future perhaps…
D: The Vocals on the album are nearly all my girlfriend, Eileen Carpio, who is working on her own solo project at the moment, but mainly from a practical point of view,it just has never developed into something brought out live. For our Tundra A/V show, we’ll be using the vocals just like another synthesiser or field recording and it’s something we like to manipulate and rearrange on the fly.
I feel as though your sound takes on a new style in the album format, especially with Tundra. The album seems to take influence from many disparate kinds of music and bring them forward into a long narrative that follows a movement from start to finish.
I: That was definitely intentional. From the outset we wanted this album to be something to be listened to from start to finish, something that has a kind of narrative, or flow, even if it was loose or abstract. That to us is what an album is. We didn’t want to put out simply a collection of tracks, which has it’s place, but that’s not what we wanted to do with this. We wanted to be quite traditional in it’s format I suppose.
We wrote most of it all at once, in a condensed period of time, so the tracks share similarities of the headspace we were in and the ideas we were interested in exploring. But there are one or two older tracks we included that fit the mood of the album. We then compiled the tracklist out of the pool of tracks we had, in conjunction with input from R&S to arrive at the list we felt had the most flow.
I was interested to hear that you’ve been influenced by the choral work of Arvo Pärt. I really liked what you said in the Fact interview about trying to find ‘the divine’ in music, which both club music and Arvo Pärt seem to do, albeit in very different ways. I see a real marriage of these two styles in a track like ‘Mountain Divide’ with it’s crazy, ecstatic build. What elements of music specifically are germane to reaching this divine or religious state, and do you think this is something specific to music?
I: I don’t think it is specific to music - I think trying to reach that divine state is about allowing your mind and body to go to a certain place where you can actually experience it, switching off from all the human, egoic, societal programming and filters that we all have, and just simply being, and loving. It’s hard to do without some help and guidance, but any artform can take you there. Maybe that’s what art is - a guide to higher realms, a pathway for us out of the mess we’re making of human existence. It’s easy to despair of humanity sometimes - just turn on the news or read a Facebook feed - but then you hear some beautiful music, or see an inspiring film or painting and you are reminded of beauty and love and you get closer to the truth of things. And music is a particularly good medium for expressing these kinds of feelings, or ideas. Nobody is immune to it - we’ve all had a little tear in our eye caused by sound. I think it’s the abstract nature of music. You can’t touch it or see it, it only ever exists momentarily as vibrations in air and yet if affects our lives so deeply. It has the power to transcend, to allow you feel love, or loved, it has the power to unite or divide, to destroy or redeem.
Music allows us to express things that we cannot express through words. It allows us to feel them, and it reminds us of who we truly are. But I think ultimately it is not about expression, it is about experience. Music allows us to truly experience being alive, being in a moment, feeling, being, not doing. That’s pretty close to divine I reckon.
D: I also feel that the physicality of modern sound systems and clubs brings an extra dimension to the the way we experience music live. Especially within certain clubs where you really feel like you’re surrounded by walls of sound , and can feel the music throughout your whole body. These experiences are something that I feel influences me when writing our music, and I feel there are parallels between these moments and the experience of hearing powerful classical music in a Cathedral or specially designed concert hall. They’re just different ways of attaining otherworldly states through sound.
I read that you prefer “doing your thing” than “trying to guess what people are expecting.” Do you think people expect you to go ‘all-out-techno’ in your performances? How do you try and avoid pandering to the audience in a live setting?
I: It’s a tough one. We definitely want to do our own thing. You can’t worry too much about what people are expecting, but at the same time we don’t want to alienate people who are into our music. Like most things, it’s a balance.
We try to engage the audience in a meaningful way without pandering or alienating. It can be difficult. But the last thing we want to do is feel we know better than the audience or insult their intelligence. Totally guilty of it in the past! But we try not to be anymore. Live music is a shared, communal experience between everyone. The comedian Simon Amstell said that instead of trying to make his audience love him, he finds ways he can love his audience. I think this is a great attitude for performance.
D: In the words of Drake’s Ghostwriters, “Know yourself”.
I understand that you used to play in a Prodigy-inspired Rave band together - what kind of stuff were you playing back then? How did you first meet and start working together?
I: Haha, yes! We played for a few years in a band with two other mates of ours. Heavily influenced by The Prodigy, and bands like Deftones, Tool. Shouty, banging stuff with vocals and heavy electronic beats. Then we got into the Warp and Rephlex sound and the band dissolved and Dara and myself kept working together. That’s how we met and started working, through that first band.
Do you see the work of Lakker and associated labels like Stroboscopic as a present-day reincarnation of that Warp/IDM tradition? Do you think the term ‘Intelligent Dance Music’ is something we should try and avoid?
I: It’s not a conscious attempt to carry on a tradition, but that has always been the music that has influenced us most in our own work. It is what we were most interested in when we first started making music, and it still excites us - that idea of ‘Braindance’ - electronic music that moves you, but also makes you feel and perhaps think. Music that moves your body and engages your being, rather than just pure functionality in the dance.
I don’t think the term ‘Intelligent Dance Music’ is something we should try to avoid, but at the same time it only has as much value as what any one person brings to it. As a handy descriptor of a certain type of music it is useful, but in terms of dance music needing to be ‘intelligent’, or needing to signify what is ‘intelligent’ as opposed to something that’s not, it’s maybe less helpful. We all have insecurities about how we are perceived as human beings and that certainly carries over into music. I’ve definitely fallen into this over the years. Wanting to be seen as ‘serious’ or ‘intelligent’ to feel validated. But now I feel that once the music is honest and from the heart then that is all it needs to be. Whether it be ‘experimental’ sound design, or balls-out bangers, once it comes from an honest place that is all the validity needed. This is not an easy thing to do in the kind of society we live in. One that puts a value on hype, trends, fashion, materialism, ‘coolness’, etc above sincerity. It’s difficult to be authentic in the age we live in. There’s a routine from the great stand-up comic Stewart Lee that addresses this - he asks what the last taboo in comedy is. Is it jokes about rape, or racism, or any other number of potentially extreme or taboo topics? He concludes that it is none of these things, it is simply a comedian trying to do something sincerely and well, then he proceeds to sing a song that reminds him of his wife, whom he loves. It is an amazing and touching piece of comedy and social commentary. So I understand the need for terms like ‘IDM’, I understand the need to feel accepted by one’s peers, to feel validated. But it is something we are trying to leave behind as individuals and try to be more honest and authentic with ourselves and with our work. PS = sorry for the Stewart Lee spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen the routine…!
D: I think its just basically different levels sound interest , for us its about trying to marry a level of interesting and original sounds with music that still moves you emotionally.
Lastly, what are your plans for the rest of the year? Any exciting projects you can tell us about?
I: the premiere of the Tundra live show at Atonal is the first thing! Then we’re taking the show on the road, for some festival performances and R&S showcases. We’re planning the first shows outside Europe. Then back in the studio for some new material…
D: Yeah I’ve been focused on the Tundra A/V show. Now I am trying to create something that reacts to the structural and rhythmic elements of the show in real time while also requiring some human input to help animate the elements to be more suited to the emotional ebb and flow of the music as well. It’s a system that allows me to work on audio improvisations as well as the Visual output at the same time. We also have lots of other ideas up our sleeve for going further with these ideas and some other great projects on the horizon as well. Good times.