Although he lives where the sun never shines – Glasgow to percise (not saying we don’t love Glasgow, but we do love the sun) – Alex Smoke is a happy man. But who wouldn’t be with books to read, tea to drink and a studio call one’s own.
The first time we heard your last release ‘Love Over Will’ we were not sure what to make of it – now it’s playing on loop. Please, tell us something about the process and what you wanted to express.
“Albums are a bit of a paradox for me as I think my music best suits an album format, and yet I rarely actually write an album as a single cohesive body of work, at least not at the outset. I really like the contrasts in style that this produces but it sometimes results in less cohesion. Compromise is also often part of the process with a label and on this LP for example, R&S really wanted Dire Need, whereas I could live without it. There is no over-arching message either, and one of the frustrations I have generally with modern music is that it’s “supposed” to say something explicit which can be conveyed in a press release and tell everyone the incredible genius of the thinking behind it. It just isn’t like that, and any thinking behind the record is interwoven into it like a fabric rather than written on it like a sticker.
In terms of production style, I like to play with technique and give my creativity as free a rein as possible, though there are some limits associated with what is expected from an AS record as opposed to another name so I can’t go totally off-grid. Just like I enjoy contrast between the tracks, I also enjoy contrast between the various parts within a track, allowing textures to work alongside clean parts and hard sounds with soft.”
The artwork of ‘Love Over Will’ is very graphic. Is there any reason in particular you chose this style?
“I like to let chance play a hand, and for this record I passed over the artwork to my friend Finlay Mackay, who works as a pro photographer in the States. He has similar interests to me and a pretty wild imagination so I was just looking forward to seeing what he came up with. Fin just had the name of the album and the music and was then given free rein to come up with what he wanted. I got an email after a few weeks saying “are you up for a weird nude?” and what else can you say to that but “Aye!”. Nudity and sexuality in our society have become totally warped out of shape and I have absolutely no problem with the artwork. It is not pornographic and it is not exploitative, and it represents free expression of something we are all familiar with.”
You also do film scores. Is your approach to such projects different to writing original tracks?
“Yeah, the way that visuals and sound interact is such a deep and fascinating thing to me. When working on a visual project there are all these layers of influence, from the surface layer of “what is the time period, what is the culture depicted” to the lower layer of “what is the mood on screen” and lower still to “what is the context” and then lower still maybe to “what is the subtext”. You can then choose how to react to each of these things. One of my major frustrations watching many mainstream (and art house too, truth be told) films is how often the music reflects mainly the surface layer, and the mood without playing about with the audience perception based on the lower layers. How many bloody films have you watched, set in Ireland or New York at the turn of the Century, which consist of Irish fiddle music? Or solo piano over scenes of ice and snow? Fucking boring. I love Badalamenti’s work with Lynch because it’s a perfect mixture of really unusual cues. There are some cheesy elements, jazz, moody electronic, orchestral etc etc all working off each other, and working off the visuals on screen, and then you’ve also got Lynch’s own menacing sound design lurking underneath as well. It makes the whole experience richer and more complex, and that is despite the style being utterly different to my own approach. Working to picture for me is in many ways my preferred way of working as I find it naturally fires my imagination, whilst freeing me from any expectations inherent in working on music under a production alias such as Alex Smoke.”
For this year you have two types of live shows planned, one for dance floors and one for watching and listening – latter billed as ‘Alex Smoke – L.O.W. A/V’. What differentiates these shows and what is your intention behind them
“When I did the Wraetlic project a couple of years ago, I toured it as an A/V show and it went really well, so I just wanted to do the same kind of shows again, focussing more on galleries, A/V festivals, unusual spaces. It’s funny how the way you are perceived by people totally dictates the kind of offers you get, so I also wanted to take the opportunity to shift peoples’ perception of what I do, away from just dancefloor techno. Having said that, I also love to play dancefloor music for people to actually dance to, as it’s a special kind of connection and very addictive. Basically I want the best of both worlds. The A/V show is based around a more experimental approach, involving the modular synth, singing, and more abstract beats, whilst the dancefloor show is an evolution of what I have always done, namely techno for getting sweaty to.”
You will perform the ‘Alex Smoke – L.O.W. A/V’ together with Florence To. Please, tell us something about her and your collaboration.
“Me and Flo have collaborated a fair bit now. Anyone wanting to get a feel for her aesthetic should check out her excellent website as it says much more than I can about what her work is like. Flo’s approach is fastidious, but also very creatively open and she changes what she does constantly. She is an artist pure and simple. I just let her do whatever she wants to do. We’ve collaborated on a few things now and our approaches are very complimentary; Flo is very detailed but keeps things open to the very end, to maximise the potential for new ideas, whereas I am much more loose in my working approach, but like to have a more fixed plan to work to. Our previous work has largely been installations so this is the first time we’ve worked on a music show together. We’re also open to one-off special shows if festivals are interested in a more involved installation kind of stage setup.”
While preparing this interview, we asked which topic you were interested in talking about. Among other things you mentioned creativity and habits. Please, share your thoughts on this very personal issue.
“I just love the nature of creativity. It is humans as they are meant to be, unfettered by intellectual concerns and simply involved in a free flow of ideas. At least that is how I see creativity in its ideal form. It is coming from outside yourself and you are simply transcribing the thoughts as they come. As soon as the intellect gets involved, that beautiful state collapses, so the art is to maintain a healthy intellectual detachment from whatever you’re doing and find ways to not analyse what it is you are doing until after you have finished. Then decide to keep it or ditch it. One of the most interesting things for me is finding out how other artists work, whether they be writers, poets, painters, whatever. I read a lot of biographies, especially of artists, and it is always inspiring. Some people find it incredibly hard to harness that creative spark, even very famous people, and especially writers it seems, and that in itself is inspiring as it demonstrates that nothing comes easily, even to genius. You have to work hard to put yourself in that space by honing the skills you’ll need, and then you must give yourself time to create without pressure or expectation. That is why I’d never want a day job. It is a luxury, but having time to breathe around your creative endeavours means a much more receptive mental state. The other important thing to realise is that many, in fact most, artists struggle to find work and general acceptance in their lifetimes, and it is a fool’s errand anyway to be bothered what others think. It is irrelevant to your art, although obviously not to your income, and that is the balance that most struggle with all their lives; when to do a job for money and when to save your energies for something pure that means something to you. The most important discovery for me has been meditation, and yoga in its widest sense, and it is simply one of the great secrets of a happy life. It has been instrumental in turning off that sense of expectation, and that over-thinking, that I was experiencing in my work, and it also aligns you better for life in general. I am now back to a state that I already had in my early twenties when I was unfazed by anything and able to absorb whatever came my way, and that is very liberating. I lost it when my life got steadily more and more complicated and very demanding of my mental energy, and it took a period of illness and time away for everything to be set back to zero again. And now I think I’ll have this state for the foreseeable future.”
Regardless of the likelihood of this event, say a fairy granted you a wish. What would you wish for and why?
“Ooooft. Tough question! The main thing I’d like to see is an increase in wisdom in the world, so depending how powerful the fairy was I’d either wish for everyone to be miraculously wise, and therefore behave in a way conducive to the world not becoming a barren waste dump full of pig-ignorant waldos and plastic gizmos that perform pointless tasks, and if the fairy was a lightweight, I’d just ask for myself to become wiser so I’d know best how to help. I do hate the modern Western world. It’s obscene and grotesque, and favours the idiot. We’ll have worse before it gets better too, but I do believe it will get better eventually.” – Amen to that!