It’s always nice to catch-up with Geoff Lee of Modulate and go back to our industrial-ish roots. We say industrial-ish because well, we were never a purely industrial publication and Modulate aren’t really a pure industrial band – more an adrenaline-fuelled crossbreed of modern rave, techno and dance influences. Recently, we had the opportunity to share a conversation with the Manchester-based DJ about his genre-bending, globe-trotting musical outlet, its future, new material and more.
“Most industrial artists today are less innovative than Coldplay”
S] How has your creative drive changed and developed over the last couple of years?
GL] “Some days you feel like writing music, some days you don’t, some years you feel like writing music, some years you don’t! But that has always been the case…each musician is unique in that respect but I’m sure others have very similar experiences. There is always the difference you have being an unsigned artist making music to being a signed and successful artist where you know every piece of public work will be pawed at and scrutinised. It’s something you try to ignore but it does put a bar there…a self imposed quality control. But I don’t force the process. I said with this record and the album – both have grown quite naturally alongside each other – that I wouldn’t pressure myself to write big tracks or club-hits. I know they will come out sooner or later given time. I’ll just write and whatever comes out, comes out, and however long it takes, is however long it takes.”
S] Obviously you write and produce Modulate’s output, but what do you enjoy about having the band members out on the road?
GL] “Modulate live morphs into a group…it’s more like a traditional live band. We get to live a dumb rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle for a while. It’s especially important when you start playing the bigger stages and bigger shows to be able to fill the stage and create enough madness on stage that people are going to be entertained. I think we’ve been described as being ‘an electronic band with the energy of a rock group’ and that’s pretty much what we go for. We may have synths and electronics but it’s a very punk way of using and abusing them.”
S] What are the positives and negatives of the industrial and EBM scene internationally in 2012?
GL] “I think it’s become a loop. A tired loop. Endlessly regurgitating the same cr** with ever diminishing returns until it’s stripped of nutrients. Hardly anything is standing out but if the audience are happy to accept that template then let them have their cake. Certain people are doing okay by rehashing the formula endlessly, I wouldn’t call them artists as such. You have artists that wish to push and progress and make music because they have to express something and they put something of themselves in their work. Then you have people who churn out music because they like standing on stage miming, taking the money, taking the plaudits…they will never challenge anybody or create anything original. Most industrial artists today are less innovative than Coldplay. I wouldn’t class myself as an industrial or EBM artist. People I look at are everyone from Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers, Justice, Polinski, Mind.In.A.Box, Kavinksy, Boys Noize, Daft Punk, Fukkk Offf, Soulwax and Knife Party.”
S] What are your thoughts current trends in music, and the re-emergence of the dubstep genre?
GL] “Trends come, trends go, they always will. Some people get upset about the evolution of this or that, or the emergence of this or that but it’ll always happen. Every so often a new form of dance comes along and smashes through, becomes hugely popular and disappears into the underground again. Right now it happens to be the aggressive Skrillex and Datsik style dubstep. Haters are always gonna hate. Personally I love what Skrillex does with it. He took it, changed it, gave it something new. Some people will be bitter, bitter about it hitting the mainstream, bitter that their nominated innovator wasn’t the one to break through, but that is life, that is the record industry.
It’s all about swings and roundabouts. The right thing comes at the right time and it’s like a tidal wave, you can’t stop it. And then it’ll go again and something new will come along. A couple of years ago it was all about the new prog-house and trance sound, then moving into the Deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia thing, now it’s dubstep, drum ‘n’ bass is doing well at the moment as it meshes really well with the dubstep, but so long as people keep moving on and making new sounds, it’s all good. I didn’t get dubstep for years, then all of a sudden…it delivered. Instead of sounding like somebody walking through quicksand and never really delivering a hook, there came this aggressive and twisted bass style that really let rip.”
S] As a veteran of UK electronic music, are there any acts that you are enjoying, or would like to work with, currently?
GL] “I’ve always admired Rob Swire’s work, either Pendulum or Knife Party. Soulwax as well. I’ve always been a massive fan of Karl Hyde’s vocals (Underworld). But I’m happy to work with anybody who brings something to the table, something different to what I can do…that’s the essence of a good collaboration. As for listening, I’ve been liking the new Porter Robinson stuff, an album Rhys from the band got me for my birthday by Polinski, I go through phases of listening to loads of stuff and then phases of listening to next to nothing and I’m in a next to nothing phase right now. Half the time I’ll just listen to whatever is on the TV channels or what people post on Facebook. Thankfully I’ve got a wide selection of friends with pretty varied taste so that introduces me to a lot of interesting stuff.”
S] Talk to us about the new EP, and what has gone into the creating of it?
GL] “It has turned into more of a mini-album! I just wrote and carried on writing and then eventually looked up and realised I had all these tracks. I think coming back after a break since ‘Detonation’, I wanted to hit with something quite accessible and make a statement of intent. It’s an evolution of the old stuff. Still Modulate, it has a few of our hallmarks, but it’s like ‘that is the old stuff and you can see where we have come from but this is the new stuff.
I called in a few remixes people owed me and gave them free reign. All I said was that ‘I’ve got a couple of clubby mixes already so be creative’. Eventually you put everything together and it kind of makes sense as an EP. Maybe I see albums as somehow requiring some form of ‘glue’… I like albums to make sense as albums. There has to be a cohesion there for me and an EP seems a bit ‘looser’. I think it’s coming in over an hour in length at the moment so it’s longer than the last LP. It’s fun, a little chaotic, takes a few risks but I think all good music should. All you can ever do is make the record you wanted to make at that time.”
S] Can we expect any surprises or guests on it?
GL] “There is a track on it that me and Shaun-F (Glis/Combichrist) worked on that started out with one of his old tracks and we threw it back and forth a bit and ended up with something really quite radically different. Shaun went, ‘That’s how I wanted it to sound’. I couldn’t get the mix balance to work properly…one of those slow boilers you tweak and tweak until it finally works. The end result never saw the light of day so we battle tested it in the live show and just carried on tweaking it until it worked. Now oddly it fits perfectly with the new EP!
The new album will almost certainly have some guests on it. There are a couple of tracks we are working on at the moment and some plans on paper to work with other people. It’s always a thrill to give something of yours to someone else and have them take it to a place you couldn’t yourself.”
S] How do you look back on tracks like ‘Skullf*ck’ and the full-length album now?
GL] “‘Skullf*ck’ is what it is. It was never a serious record. I threw all these elements together that I know work on the dancefloor and stood well back…just to see if I could do it. We knew it could be the huge track it became but it’s nice when it actually does become that track and it opened a hell of a lot of doors for me. For a while it overshadowed everything, it set a bar that we had to match but I don’t even think about it like that now. I was looking online the other day and found it had been voted into the Top 500 industrial tracks of all time in the Wax Trax records poll…now Wax Trax are pretty much a real old school industrial label, so the chart was all NIN, Ministry, Skinny Puppy, Front 242 and 16 Volt. Everything was at least 10 years old…if you took only the tracks from the last 10 years I think we made the Top 10. So yeah…it is what it is.
‘Detonation’…I haven’t actually listened to it in a long time. You spend so much time listening to your work when you are making it and playing live that you don’t really listen to it that much once it’s been released. I think it’s a good album, still selling well actually, so I can’t complain. You grow, develop, mature, live, change, but it is a snapshot of me when I made it. I never thought about longevity, it really was of the moment but it’s still out there, still doing well. It’s odd, once it goes out into the world it’s no longer your baby. The writing process is like giving birth, bringing up a child, then you release it and hope it finds it’s own way in the world. All you can do is wish it the best.
I think just going through the whole process, you grow, you develop. Somebody said ‘Your first album is your homage to your heroes, your second you start to step out on your own and your third you are flying solo’. I think in this day and age, with so much homogeneity and with nobody really selling anything above mediocre figures you may as well be as unique and true to yourself as you can be. I believe that good music will always find a home, a fan-base. Yes, you need ‘the industry’ part of that to get the exposure and provide the marketing but in this day and age, when you can experiment and take risks because you are working out of a bedroom studio, why not? Who says you even have to release albums any more? I know physical copies still sell fairly well in certain markets but I think in future we might just make singles. A one-off experimental track or a dancefloor banger and release it as is with maybe a b-side or remix. Three tracks. Bang…just put it out there as soon as you make it. That is liberating.
One thing I think Skrillex did was rip up the template of what it took to be successful. Two EPs – one of which he gave away for free, the second he sold via Beatport. Made them on a laptop in his bedroom and on the road in hotels. No physical copy. Nothing. I’d say without a doubt he was 2011’s biggest name in electronic music. Clever label, marketing, management, absolutely. It changed the game.”
S] Obviously you have a great reputation as a DJ and musician, but what would you say the biggest challenges are for Modulate, currently?
GL] “I think personally the biggest thing for us would be to push through into the kind of arenas we’d like to be in, able to play festivals and shows like Glastonbury or Bestival – I think we’d make a great festival band – radio play, video play and more. Although we came from an industrial background by virtue of the labels we are on, I don’t think Modulate has ever just been an industrial act. We’ve always had a very mixed up sound, elements of electro, techno, rave and trance. Industrial is a dirty word to the media… and largely it’s not undeserving of that. So we want to be able to go, ‘Hey, this is what we do…if you think you know what we are you are probably wrong’. Especially so with the new tracks which are all over the place style-wise. ‘Boombox’ is a filthy electro track that bursts into a massive hands-in-the-air rave chorus but if you ask someone what genre it is, I don’t know what they will say. So I think it’s about getting ourselves known to people and getting the new stuff out there and listened to.”
S] What did you think about when writing the ‘Robots’ tune?
GL] “I was playing around in the studio and put a drum machine through a distortion plug-in and then into a filter and by a happy accident this chopped-up guitar-like sound came out in time with the kick drum. You just know when you’ve got a groove locked down and you are nodding your head along, so then onto the keyboard part. I guess ‘the Spirit of Jazz’ was in the house that day and this funky descending Moog part kind of fell out of the keyboard. The vocals were me trying to copy something I saw Swedish House Mafia do, only doing it completely differently so it came out nothing like Swedish House Mafia! When you’ve got something working together you don’t need many elements, if they gel together and the mix sounds full that is all you need. Sometimes simple is best, the key is knowing when to restrain yourself and stop and leave it alone. Voila! One three minute pop song.”
S] How will you be promoting the record; do you have any special plans for this year that you can tell us?
GL] “I think we are shooting a video for ‘Robots’ soon. We wound back on the live shows after the UK tour last summer to work on the new music so we are gearing up the live machine again. We’ve got a UK/European tour in the works for later in the year. If we can make it over to North America, that will be awesome. So keep a look out on www.modulateonline.com or www.facebook.com/modulate for announcements and we’ll see you soon.”
S] Finally, on a random note, if you create a Frankenstein’s Monster based around the Modulate sound – what or who would it be made up of?
GL] “Big ground-shaking bass…we’ve got to start with the back-end of a hippo. Then the torso of Animal from the Muppets, the skeleton of Kraftwerk’s robots, topped off with the head of Jean-Michel Jarre wearing Slash’s hat. I’d pay good money to see that perform!”
For more information visit Modulate’s official Facebook.
All images by Aidan Williamson, 2012