Interview: Motor talk career, production and the new album, Man Made Machine
3rd Jul 2012 | 14:18
Bryan Black and Oly Grasset talk about working with Prince and touring with Depeche Mode and Gary Numan
MOTOR have achieved a great deal in a very short time. Within five years, their stark Techno beginnings morphed into Electro, leading to three critically-acclaimed albums and a tour with Depeche Mode – before signing to Chris Liebing's leading German Techno imprint, CLR.
Unsatisfied, however, the duo are back with Man Made Machine, an unexpected diversion into menacing, pounding Industrial. Made during a tour break, the album was mostly conceived and recorded in the confines of a hotel room, yet the duo still managed to enlist tour buddies Martin Gore and Gary Numan to provide a voice, albeit not in the vocal booth they'd primarily set up in the bathroom.
FM: Who influenced you in your formative years?
Oly Grasset: "It all started with my hippy French parents who were crazy about the British and US '60s and '70s bands, from the Beatles to Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Black Sabbath and everybody else. The first record I bought was The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle by the Sex Pistols; Punk was my main influence as a teenager until I discovered Electronic music when I first arrived in England. Then it was the dark Electro sounds of D.A.F. and early Cabaret Voltaire. Thanks go to Mute Records and Rough Trade for bringing me all those '80s underground Electronic bands."
Bryan Black: "I grew up near Minneapolis so Prince's Purple Rain changed my life. To hear, at that age, Prince talking about Nikki masturbating to a magazine was something new. The film had a big impact on me. I must have watched it 100 times. Since then, I've always been drawn to freaky, experimental Pop and Electronic music.
"Growing up in the US suburbs in the '80s I was exposed to lots of Synth Pop. Depeche Mode had that hit People Are People, and I'll never forget hearing Fade To Grey [Visage] and Vienna [Ultravox] for the first time. By high school I was into a harder sound: Nine Inch Nails, Meat Beat Manifesto and Nitzer Ebb. Samplers and synths intrigued me because they could express such a large spectrum of sounds. It didn't take me long to discover that Rock 'n' Roll was basically four instruments while Electronic musicwas limitless."
"Prince was super quiet and softly spoken initially, but once I got to know him he opened up and we'd always joke around and try to prank the other band members."
I understand you ended up working with Prince, how did you get involved with him?
BB: "My first band, Haloblack, had been gigging around town in Minneapolis. We were one of thefew bands experimenting with samplers and dance beats at the time and Prince must have heard about us. He had one of his people invite us to perform at his studio for an after show party. We did the performance and he was hiding somewhere watching. The next day I'm called to his studioand offered a job to make sounds and act as his keyboard technician. My first job was to create samples from all the 2-inch tapes of his classic LPs. I had to map out samples from each song so that he and his other keyboard players could trigger them live."
Was he easy to get along with?
BB: "Prince was super quiet and softly spoken initially, but once I got to know him he opened up and we'd always joke around and try to prank the other band members. At one of the daily rehearsals he broke a key on his custom-made guitar so I quickly sourced a replacement and brought it to him. He looked at me and said, 'Next time can you fix it before it gets broken?' As I was making my apologies he smiled and I realised he was just playing with me.
"Prince was a workaholic; we'd rehearse from 11am until 4pm, then it was into the studiorecording new music all night. He'd sometimes hold secret live concerts at the studio from 2am into the early hours for about 100 locals. He'd sleep two or three hours and be back working. It was exhausting for me – I had a pager and he was always paging me in the middle of the night."
What were you doing prior to the formation of MOTOR and how did you both meet?
OG: "I'd previously been on the Camden Britpop scene, drumming in bands on Food, EMI and Parlophone Records. I supported Blur until Itrashed my leg and went full-on with Electronic music as Propellerheads' Rebirth had just been launched. I met Bryan in Camden Underworld in 2001. We started an Electroclash project called XLOVER and were signed to City Rockersand DJ Hell's label International Deejay Gigolo. Things got a bit messy with our XLOVER vocalist, plus our manager at the time was demanding commercial Pop tracks. Bryan and I wanted to do something more fun and experimental, so we decided to start producing pure 'boy' Techno – and take a lot of drugs."
BB: "After our debut LP as XLOVER we found ourselves craving to make some noise. At the time, Techno wasn't really exciting. We had this idea to make distorted/experimental Techno with a 4/4 beat. So we made three songs, sent them to Novamute and they signed us immediately."
What was your approach to making music as MOTOR? Was there a plan?
OG: "Plan A was to do Techno, then it slightly deviated to Electro-House, Hard Electro and Techno-Rave. There was always that Techno element to our music, but as we were playing live we had to make it more human."
BB: "We just wanted to play with the Techno format in our own way. MOTOR was the antithesis to the Dance music scene that was around at the time. When we started there was no Justice or Boys Noize. We were alone in this approach to Techno and I think people took notice because we stood out from everything else."
Your first three albums were more Techno than Industrial, why the change on Man Made Machine?
BB: "It all came together on the Depeche Mode tour. There was no masterplan. On the second date in Athens, Dave Gahan fell ill and DM put the tour on hold. No one knew when he would return, so we flew to Berlin and found ourselves in a hotel room waiting on word from the DM camp. We decided to mess around on some new songs, set up a vocal booth in the toilet and soon had ourselves an impromptu studio setup. As an experiment, we started producing more melodic Techno Rock ideas – maybe as a reaction to seeing 60,000 people losing their minds to DM overnight.
"There was something very different playing to stadiums of people who knew the songs, as opposed to small sweaty underground clubs where people just want to dance to a beat. Up until that point we'd made three Techno/Electro LPs and played all the big festivals and parties. If there was a time to try something different, this was it."
"Martin Gore was the first vocalist on the LP. We gave him a CD of the track and a few days later he looked into our dressing room and said, 'Yes, I'd love to do it'."
It's also the first time you've written songs as opposed to instrumentals, was that simply an attempt to broaden your appeal?
OG: "We've already done the song thing – we knew how to do it – but this time we thought having proper established 'Pop stars' would make more sense. Personally, I find it harder to produce a captivating eight-minute Techno track than make a three-minute intro-verse-chorus standard-formula Pop song."
BB: "I was completely tired of Electro music. We started out as a Techno act, but somehow fell intothis Electro scene. It wasn't as innovative or as fresh as it was five years ago and we never like repeating ourselves on a record. We pretty much explored that territory on the last album, so we wondered what would happen if we kept our crazy signature production style and applied it to vocal-driven songs. We knew after we'd finished a couple of demos that we were onto something. Our manager at the time was ecstatic, so we kept going. We had nothing to lose."
What can you tell us about the vocal contributors on the album and how you got them involved?
BB: "Martin Gore was the first vocalist on the LP. We gave him a CD of the track and a few days later he looked into our dressing room and said, 'Yes, I'd love to do it'. It wasn't long after the DM tour that we were asked to support Gary Numan and then we subsequently remixed his new single, so it was natural to work with him on the LP.
"We had mostly male vocal-driven tracks demo'd up, so we thought we'd ask Billie Ray Martin, since we wanted that female dynamic. We'd previously heard her vocals on a DJ Hell single and we knew she'd be perfect. After the tourwe got Alec Empire to record Billie's vocals on Hyper Lust, while The Knife with Douglas McCarthy [Nitzer Ebb] was already done in 2007."
How happy are you with what you got from the vocalists?
BB: "I envisioned Martin doing a softer, more balladic, type of vocal and he turned in a monster lead that blew us all away. On the other hand, Gary Numan gave us a very soft, delicate vocal which was not what we were expecting, but ended up working perfectly against the big sound of the music. For the most part, the vocalists recorded their vocals with their own team and sent us the files. It's hard to top the guests we had on this album, and I'm not sure we want to keep the same formula on the next record, but there are some great vocalists who have already approached us about future collaborations, so we'll definitely keep that door open."
OG: "It was a fun experience to re-work the vocals in our own studios at our own pace, trying out different vocoders and FX for different singers. With Gary Numan we used the Vocal Transformer; it's part of Logic Pro and one of our favourite tools for monotone vocals. We also used the Morphoder from Waves on Reni Lane to get that intimate, whispering vocal sound. I'm not really desperate to work with vocalists, personally I like to make the music speak and I have a great time producing weird 'voices' within the computer."
What equipment do you use when you're back in the studio?
OG: "I mostly use Logic Pro but my computer is filled with over 800 audio plug-ins. My favouritemixing tools are the Satson console by Sonimus, the UBK-1 by Kush Audio, the Deep Analog EQ by DUY and Etch by FXpansion. For sounds, I love the Korg Legacy collection, the DCAM Synth Squad and Tremor by FXpansion, the Sylenth1 from Lennar Digital, Battery, Reaktor and Massive by NI, Metrum by Keilwerth Audio and Microtonic by Sonic Charge."
BB: "I primarily work with an iMac and a MacBook running Logic Pro using a Native Instruments Audio 10 soundcard. I have Native Instruments Komplete 8, as well as the Arturia collection. However, I find my favourite sourcefor making sounds is Logic's ES2 Virtual Analogue Synth and other sampling analogue synths such as the ARP 2600 and Pro One. Sometimes I'll write a track with only audio samples to get unique textures, other times I write using soft synths. For drums, I usually use Battery.
"I try to steer clear of using presets from all of the popular plug-ins, although they can provide a good starting point to build up an idea quickly. I record vocals with an AKG condenser microphone through a PreSonus Tube preamp using TC-Helicon VoiceLive as a vocal processor. Formonitoring I use Dynaudio and NS10 nearfields, and Tannoys for farfield. I love using my Ultrasone DJ1 headphones in the studio and have just got the Akai MPK49 controller keyboard, which I'm really happy with, especially for live performance."
What's your favourite piece of kit?
OG: "Sonic Charge's Microtonic is such an easy and fun drum machine to go nuts with, but you can also make whole tracks with it." BB: "I always go back to the ARP 2600 when I need some raw unpredictable sounds that I cannot produce with soft synths. But for day-to-day stuff, the ES2 is my secret tool."
Are you always on the look out for new hardware/software?
OG: "I'm always looking for software that sounds like hardware, whether it's for mixing or riffing. The more dusty and crackly it sounds the better. I love soft synths and plug-ins with soul."
BB: "I recently got back into analogue synths and drum machines. I'd sold my whole collection when I moved from Minneapolis to London, and now I'm finding myself back in the studio sampling analogue synths again. At the same time, virtual synths and emulators are getting so good that I'm always exploring both worlds."
"I'd love to be able to automate and have complete control over analogue synths within a computer sequencer. For example, if the ARP 2600 could be controlled within Logic, I'd use it all the time."
Is there any equipment that has not been invented yet that you would like to be invented?
OG: "A funky-speaking VSTi sequencer plug-in: you type the words in, select the time signature, the stretching type and type in the BPM, all incorporated with classic analog FX, vocoder, autotune and many vocals in many languages – and it speaks in sync with your track in your favourite DAW. Virsyn did it, but it's funky-less!"
BB: "I'd love to be able to automate and have complete control over analogue synths within a computer sequencer. For example, if the ARP 2600 could be controlled within Logic, I'd use it all the time. Instead, I sample it, but I'm unable to manipulate it after that, although sometimes these limitations are good. Having a world of options can harm the writing process.The analogue synth simulators are getting so good it's hard to justify keeping the old machines, but there is something romantic aboutworking with hardware that I could never let go of completely."
Are you lead by the technology or by ideas?
OG: "Both! Ideas come out of nowhere and technology brings inspiration. For example if I watch a programme on television that I like I'll make a track about it, or if I hear a strange electrical noise, bleep, buzz, swearing or ranting, it can also stir up my creative juices.If I try out a new plug-in demo I usually try it inside out and end up making a track with it; if the track gets signed I usually buy the plug-in as a reward."
BB: "Ideas, mostly. I find the best songs are in my head before I get to the studio; I try and have an idea of what I want to make before I sit in front of the computer. This produces the best results for me personally."
I understand you're both quite hands-on live – how much of your music is 'live' as opposed to pre-recorded?
BB: "For the new tour, it's more live than ever. We've stripped out all the primary sounds from the tracks and mapped them out on various triggers such as drums, keyboards, synth guitars and so on, so we're triggering sounds, playing keyboards, drums and singing live. It was important to find a live solution that could fit into three suitcases since we fly to all our gigs and pack as much as possible into these cases. Promoters provide the other stuff that is too heavy to fly with.
"I sing on most tracks and when I'm not on the microphone I'm mostly playing keyboards and triggering samples on the Akai MPC drum pads. Hugo Menendez is the other performer on stage with us; he sings on two tracks and has an army of drums, percussion and samplers at his workstation."
What instruments do you use on stage and what software are you running?
BB: "TC-Helicon VoiceLive Touch for vocal processing, the Akai MPK49 controller keyboard, Akai MPK25 modified with a shoulder strap, Roland SPD-S, individual Roland drum pads, various cymbals, floor toms, a Mackie 16-channel mixer, two microphones, a smoke machine and some strobe lights. We also have a DVD running visuals on LCD projection screens and two laptops onstage running Logic with samples coming from the ESX-24, Battery and Ultrabeat."
What next for MOTOR?
BB: "We're talking to Gary Numan about touring the US together this autumn, and in the meantime we'll be performing our new live show in Europe on select weekends. CLR has chosen no less than four singles, so there will be lots of EPs coming out with quality remixes over the course of the year. We're also talking about making a video for our Gary Numan-featured single Pleasure In Heaven.The next single will be Hyper Lust and like the previous single will feature Techno remixes from artists associated with CLR. We're also both bringing out solo EPs and Oly's project D-R-U-N-K (Ghetto EP) should be out in June on Police Records."