Encourage dancing and toe tapping with melodies, harmonies and rhythms
Ed Handley and Andy Turner were high school friends with a shared appreciation of hip-hop. Since joining forces in the mid-1980s the duo has had a long-term home at Warp Records alongside artists such as Aphex Twin, Autechre, Clark and Boards of Canada. Plaid are true mainstays of electronic music, and they’ve been continuously active for over a quarter of a century. They released their ninth full-length album “Digging the Remedy” in 2016, and this year they are headlining the bill at PHONO17.
Interview with Plaid by Sandra S. Borch
Your first record as Plaid came out in 1991 on Black Dog Productions. However, your story obviously begins even earlier – how did you meet each other?
We met at high school in Suffolk, which is in the east of England, sometime around 1983/4. We met because of our mutual obsession with Hip Hop culture, which had started to spread out from New York.
What was happening at the time?
We should have been concentrating on passing exams, but we spent a lot of our time break-dancing, which led to music making. There wasn’t much motivation or encouragement to carry on in education, so we both ended up getting jobs in 1987. It was pretty unexciting administration work, but it allowed us to survive and indulge our growing interest in electronic music. We parted ways for a little while, but reconnected in London in 1989, where we met Ken Downie and formed The Black Dog.
By 1987 we were starting to hear more diverse electronic music from America, house and the beginnings of techno, which had developed from earlier synthesiser-based music. A compilation released in 1988 called ‘The New Dance Sound of Detroit’ had a big influence on us.
It sounded really futuristic, alienating and loving at the same time.
This was the moment we realised that technology enabled a wonderful freedom to explore sound and rhythm, and that computers would eventually become studios.
In the UK, this new music and the entactogen/psychedelic drugs combined to create a culture of ‘raving’, partying where the real focus was on appreciation of the music, dancing and friendship. This inspired a community of bedroom music makers, like us, who would release small runs of vinyl and take them round to the specialist record shops that had started opening to feed lovers of dance music.
We self-released a few EPs, then the first Plaid LP, and in 1991 we were signed by Warp records, who were a small but influential label and record shop in Sheffield. The rest can be pieced together from our releases!
Although there was an economic recession in the early nineties, the UK was pretty stable and wealthy. We were both lucky enough to live in central London and it was still possible on below average incomes.
It was the dawn of the internet and mobile communications for the masses. Ken Downie showed us the Bulletin Board System, a network of servers which was popular before the internet, which opened our minds up to the ideas of networked virtual realities and led us to read books like Neuromancer by William Gibson. There was a sense that technology would change everything, and we just had to help steer it in a benevolent direction.
One characteristic of your music is that it has a certain Plaid-identity – how do you add that to your music?
It must be related to two things, the kind of melodies, harmonies and rhythms we like, and the type of sounds we use. We veer towards playful but introverted harmonies and softer sounds. This is just what stimulates us in the best way.
Do you have any new projects on the way?
We are working on a new album of more percussive material and have some soundtrack work coming up.
Have you considered going into different styles of business? You’ve dabbled in the app-world for example.
We have contemplated it, but we don’t really have the skills to do anything other than music. We will probably be involved with more music-based apps, since they seem like a promising and interesting way to deliver music and visual elements in the future.
You’ve been working together with Bob Jaroc to do an AV show and what inspires the visual art you put into your live shows?
We haven’t worked with Bob for quite a few years, but we loved his work. We have developed our own video/graphics software that we use to generate synchronised graphics and present other directors’ video pieces.
Is your AV show a way to express sound visually?
Some of it is to do with the direct visualisation of sound, to act as an abstract enhancer to the music. Some of it is to do with storytelling.
Integrating technology seems like a natural evolution of music to you?
Technology allowed us to be involved in music.
It is more generative than performative for us, we use computers to assist us in music making.
What is the best case scenario for the future?
The best case for society and life is probably that we all develop more empathy and act upon it. Better communication and understanding might lead to that. Music will be fine ‒ it is something so formless and personal, that it endures through everything.
What encourages you the most in the world?
The people who help others in difficult situations and the people that survive those situations. They can give us some perspective and inspiration.
In your opinion, what is music’s most valuable ability?
It can generate a sense of freedom that can feel like confidence, unity or more generally, love. It can feel like a world.
How does that ability take form? And how does it scatter?
On its most basic level it is the satisfaction and distraction of pattern recognition. It requires mental concentration or physical exertion to fully appreciate.
It can scatter with idle thought, over-analysis or physical-world issues!
Do you encourage a movement, a thought or an action with your music (being political, anti-political, philosophical, psychological, personal or beyond)?
We encourage dancing
it is such a valuable action that connects people and things together. Even toe tapping. It is tempting to be more overtly political within our music, but it is mostly instrumental, so the job has to be done with emotional, psychological or metaphysical cues.