Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Electronic Exchange: Live Review & Interview

There’s an irony in the venue name for this packed Mind On Fire promotion. Every nook and cranny is spoken for in the Chorlton bar by the time aptly named inter-European duo The Electronic Exchange take their positions in the makeshift stage area tucked into the corner of the room. That the visuals show is then projected on the opposite wall is indicative of, depending on how you see it, the awkwardness or uniqueness of the space.

The minimal glitches and wall-shaking bassline rumbles filling The Nook are born from a very 21st century musical model. Najia Bagi (vocals) and Tullis Rennie (production/electronics) are a pair who rarely find themselves in the same room together, yet have released a debut EP consisting of four tracks intertwining ideas from them both. Nevertheless, they agree that the distance between them – Manchester to Barcelona – often acted as an advantage.

Najia: “There was lots of correspondence between us – both audio files and emails, but that’s one of the things that was brilliant about it. For me as a vocalist, it was really great to have the space to write one melody then, whilst falling asleep the following week, write another one and be able to use them both!”

Tullis: “It was a new experience for us both but the working process certainly has its benefits. We never felt restricted by time in order to be creative, as you might in a studio session. I think we really felt liberated to pursue our own ideas when recording, but then always had feedback and comments from the other about those ideas. The perfect mix, I’d say! Being remote from each other certainly wasn’t a drawback in our case...”

Even given this detached synchronicity, there might be a tendency to relax with no deadlines breathing down your neck, but the collaborative element served to urge a steady creativity, with emails the catalyst.

Tullis: “I’ve never met anyone who can write so many emails in one day! It was great; we really developed a working relationship and a buzz between us about the tracks. I tend to procrastinate when I’m producing, and then work in flurries of activity, so with someone to bounce off and occasionally chivvy me into finishing something, but also having that time and space, is the perfect combo.”

Najia: “I think Tullis described the process accurately when after our gigs in the UK and before he flew back to Barcelona, he said, ‘OK, so I’ll email you, and I’ll expect eight emails back from you!’ But for me, the process gave me the space to write vocal melodies that I might not if there was a band surrounding me playing loud instruments – not that there’s anything wrong with that, but because I work well when there’s more time and less pressure.”

Another side to the project was the mystery of songs as a jigsaw puzzle where you only have sight of how half of the pieces are laid in place. During the show, this compositional mystery manifests itself through occasional reassuring glances shared between the pair, but the smorgasbord of sounds from electronic echoes to doomsaying drums affix homogenously with softly looped vocal tones.

Najia: “Tullis started the ball rolling each time and, when he received the first set of vocals, he would tweak it, sometimes with some guidance from me, and send it back and I'd get going again and so on and so on. In terms of technical process, I would send the track in its entirety to show where I felt that the vocals should be, and then the separate clean files for Tullis to play with. So very often, where I thought the vocal lines would be isn't where they would end up. And that is fantastic! Like magic...”

Tullis: “Like Najia mentioned, there was this 'magic' or 'surprise' element to the work – a track would turn up in your inbox and you'd have no idea how it had progressed.”

The music itself is also a step in a different direction for both musicians. Tullis is no stranger to samples and off-kilter electronica – the introductory rhythms are narrated by rehashed words of wisdom from an early champion of electronic music, Fred Judd – but The Electronic Exchange has taken him down a darker, more beats-driven path towards Portishead territory. Indeed the effect of Najia’s vocal delivery alongside these echoing clicks, clacks and thwacks is not too dissimilar to Beth Gibbons at her angsty best; a variation from her sound with the guitar-focused To Sophia.

Tullis: “Najia’s voice inspires me to try to write music I wouldn’t normally write. I’m not really a beat-maker, but I’ve always aspired to be one. Basically, I'm not cool enough for those guys. But in a way, I think that's what sets us apart a bit. Those kind of reference points – hip-hop, soul, current UK bass music... basically things to make people move – but coming at it from a different angle.”

“The stuff I've worked on before as a solo artist is much more abstract electronic soundscapes, or being a laptop musician in some free improv ensembles - so this is quite a departure for me. That's why we called it ‘toolshed dub’ in the press release – it’s like if your Dad takes up a bit of an embarrassing hobby, which really should be confined to the shed outside. I'm a hobbyist beat maker.”

Najia: “At risk of sounding gushy, I feel the same as Tullis – his music has inspired me to write vocal melodies, harmonies and even lyrics that I would never have had the courage to do previously. Because there is so much space in the music he writes, creating lead melodies, harmonies and other vocal lines has been really easy for me.”

“The first song we wrote, 'Noises', is a real indicator of how I felt at the beginning of the process, because I was playing it again and again in the kitchen while I was washing the dishes and suddenly I sang out ‘Wish I had the noises to make, but I don't.’ I didn't feel very confident at the beginning. But when I sent that riff to Tullis we were off! My favourite musical genres are Jazz, Soul and Motown really, as well as lots of other – always tuneful – music, so I'm coming at this from what I hope is an original angle. I don't really know any ‘cool’ music, apart from Flying Lotus, so I hope that makes what we write sound fresh!”

There are already plans to continue to embrace the internet’s global village.

Najia: “We’ve started to write already – we didn’t plan on writing an entire EP when we started; it was just an experiment, led by necessity, but it far exceeded my expectations. I hope we’ll continue to write like this while we live in different cities...”

Tullis: “I'm really excited by the direction of the latest tune we're working on. It’s going to broaden our sound. The working relationship is still progressing. I've started to suggest lyrics, which I would never have done in the past!”

The EP has been made available through netlabel Concrete Moniker and, as its co-founder, Tullis has some valid and intriguing insights into the successes and limitations of music predominantly heard through low-quality laptop sound-systems.

“I think the role of recorded music in people’s lives will continue to stay the same in terms of its sentimental value – people who have always valued it will continue to do so – but the monetary value of recorded music is in flux, and the way people consume music is changing rapidly.”

“In some ways that's OK; the easier it becomes to disseminate music via the internet with mp3s, the easier it becomes for more people to hear new music more easily. However, there are some things that sadden me, and that's literally the sound of recorded music as it moves into the future. I can just about tolerate 320kbps mp3, especially now as people are mastering productions separately to work as digital releases, but most people seem happy to listen to any old download, stream or low-grade Youtube rip of a song, and listen to it on their inbuilt laptop speakers. I'm someone who spends their life obsessing about sound quality and production, but that craftsmanship is getting lost.”

“Also, while I'm ranting, I feel that the generation of music fans that is developing right now has little or no attention span. When did someone last put an album on via their computer and then sit down and listen to it start to end...? Without skipping, shuffling or having Spotify ads interrupt it?”

Needless to say, unless you’ve just arrived from 1985 in a modified DeLorean, the goalposts have been well and truly moved on the music industry’s playing field. But before you slam the door back shut on this uncertain future and put your foot down ‘til 88 mph, be assured that there’s a whole World Wide Web of opportunity for those who, like Tullis, are willing to put in some time and effort.

“The role of the record label as it was historically, the 20th century model shall we say, is pretty much dead. Labels still have their part in terms of being respected taste-makers, but so do online magazines, blogs and web-based digital shops, so the illusion of ‘being signed’ to make a record has been lost. These days you can do it yourself, and you're nearly always the better for it. You have complete artistic control, any money made is your own, and the internet is the best marketing tool in the world.”

The marketing potential is key, and their netlabel is undoubtedly a benefit to those musicians whose recordings are made available through the website, but a balance tilted towards organic independence will always leave a certain glass ceiling. Launched in 2007 – shortly after Radiohead’s brief mainstream-pot-stirring pay-what-you-like digital download of In Rainbows – Concrete Moniker could never hope for the same fanfare to promote their releases as the aforementioned Oxfordians can freely muster. But they remain committed to the same ‘customer decides’ model of download payment, and this ethos is what provides a platform (if not a possible springboard) for music worthy of greater recognition.

Aside from lamenting listening ideals that are diminishing with every stride into the 21st century’s throwaway music-on-demand culture, Tullis is pragmatic but positive about the helping hand that his netlabel can offer its roster of leftfield experimenters, that also includes invention from Levenshulme Bicycle Orchestra, The Splice Girls and Rennie’s own various collaborations.

“The cons are, of course, that you're starting out alone, and you have no clout, but the way we work with Concrete Moniker is that no-one is in a contractually binding agreement, so that if they got some interest at a higher level, they're free to take it. A bit like how Fierce Panda used to work in the 90s – that's what we're aiming for, but an electronic version.”

Words: Ian Pennington
Images (except images #2, #3 & #10): Jacob Russell
Images #2 & #3: Courtesy of The Nook / Mind On Fire
Image #10: Alex Rennie

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