Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Interview: The Electronic Exchange

Since interviewing The Electronic Exchange at the end of 2010 they’ve grown a lot; in numbers, in recognition, in cohesion and in understanding.

They have swelled to a six-piece live band, although still reliant upon a steady broadband connection to share ideas and compose final versions of songs. Tullis Rennis, co-founder of both The Electronic Exchange and the genuinely open-minded netlabel Concrete Moniker, believes that they have maintained a similarly democratic process despite the greater populous, but it does mean that there are more people to meet in person for the first time when last-minute rehearsals finally take place under the same roof.

Roughly a year after the eponymous debut EP, the pair returned with Second Shift, multi-layered carvings melding Thom Yorke’s mind-warps to Mount Kimbie’s metallic echoes that may appear more direct and with a lighter ambient spirit but is equally glitch-ridden. My First Moth producer Neko Neko was recruited to remix ‘Fit Right’ and ‘Shapeshifter’ for the record and has already successfully entwined those into his live set with his addition of a Burial-esque dusky dimness, matching more elements of the 2010 EP, The Electronic Exchange, than Second Shift.

The Electronic Exchange’s impending tour is with a new track in mind (available to download at no cost). ‘Stay Straight’ features hints of the expanded live personnel with brass and live drums in support of Najia Bagi, whose vocal lead displays an added confidence following her debut solo record, Six Months, released towards the end of 2011.

Now Then Manchester returns to the scene where Najia Bagi, Tullis Rennis and new live drummer Dave Johnson discuss the latest project and tour, the development of the ‘electronic exchange’ composing technique and ‘toolshed dub’.

Now Then: How does this show compare to previous full band performances for The Electronic Exchange at Band on the Wall and Umbro? What can people expect?

Tullis Rennie: It’s a step up from the Umbro show at FutureEverything because we'll be playing a full headline set with the whole 6-piece group on every tune.

NT: For what reasons did you make the change from a duo to include a larger band?

TR: I think both Najia and I have been feeling increasingly strongly over time that the duo format of the group doesn't quite do a 'live' show justice and that both of us are bursting full of musical ideas that need us to include live musicians.

NT: How did you recruit the other musicians? Are they involved with any of your other musical projects?

TR: They're a rum bunch of old friends, ex-band mates and new collaborators. After the Umbro show, Najia worked with some of the string players again for her solo show, so they're becoming more regular collaborators and closer acquaintances. Andrew, our new cellist, is completely new to the project and he's got stuck right in. I can't wait to meet him!

NT: For the debut EP you initially labelled The Electronic Exchange project as “toolshed dub”; has that outlook changed in any way? Would you alter that label now and to what?

TR: Ahaha, yeah I'd forgotten about that. It was one of those things that you write at 2am on a press release to try and keep yourself and the person you're writing to interested. It had some merit, as I was tinkering around in my compositional shed trying to be a beat-maker and the dub thing was apparent on most of those tracks.

I think we've progressed and broadened our scope and sound. 'Fit Right' for example is the first time I’ve strayed into using actual electronic drum sounds.

I'm going to steer clear of any new tags, for fear of getting myself into more hot water. Although, today I wrote an e-mail to a friend describing Machinedrum's Room(s) (incidentally one of my favourite records of last year) and I described it as “electronic dance music but with heart, soul and bits that make you cry.” I'd love to achieve that one day. I think we're on the right track...

NT: Dave, as someone new to the ‘electronic exchange’ process, how did you fit into it?

Dave Johnson: The practicalities are that I receive a version of an Electronic Exchange song online, which I listen to, a lot. I then think about possible percussion parts that could go with it as part of a live show. I try these parts out alone or with Najia and then describe them as best I can online. This is read by all the other musicians involved. They are then free to leave any comments or suggestions. It’s similar for every member, so I can find myself commenting on ideas for cello parts or vocals or even about the structure of the song. It’s very refreshing to just throw as many ideas around as you want; it’s all been very open. I’ve basically completely indulged myself in talking about my own parts and receiving feedback about it. It’s lovely. I feel very validated.

NT: What did you know about the production techniques before joining the band?

DJ: I knew how the process would work because I’d been involved with the last performance at FutureEverything but before that I really couldn’t see how productive it would be until I started doing it. I am really used to just sitting in a practice room for hours on end and trying out any ideas and I like working that way because it’s immediate, so trying to collaborate online with a group classical musicians sounded very daunting. But I got a lot out of working a different way and I was genuinely surprised with how strongly it all came together and how well everyone gelled musically.

NT: Would you do the same again in the future?

DJ: I would definitely say yes to anything Najia and Tullis asked of me. They are sexy, bass hungry animals. Every tune I receive of them is a sonic beast with a wide mouth ready to be stuffed full of beats. I really love working on this music and it’s been an opportunity to work with musicians that I would never cross paths with otherwise. I would love to do it again. Please.

NT: Was it difficult to fuse more ideas together through the impersonal realm of the internet or was there some leadership from Najia & Tullis? Is the overall process still democratic, even now that there are more voters?

DJ: There is a certain level of leadership from Najia and Tullis and I’m impressed with how efficient they have made the process. They might take the lead by introducing a new song and beginning a conversation thread but they have never ruled out anyone else’s ideas. The fact that you read someone’s ideas means you really give them some thought before you respond to them. In a practice room setting it’s very easy to dismiss someone’s idea because you have a different one or because you’re in a bad mood.

Also, because everyone is from fairly different musical backgrounds, there seems to be a genuine interest in hearing suggestions from a totally different perspective. I would say that it’s sometimes hard to imagine how all the ideas are going to work and that you don’t really know until you all try them out in a room together. We’ll have three rehearsals to do that. Easy.

TR: I think it’s democratic, although we do have to show leadership in some aspect, to get the ball rolling, chivvy people into responding...

NT: Have you encountered anyone else who works solely through long-distance means in composing songs?

TR: I think people are doing it all the time, for example remixes are basically only done this way, as most of those DJs and Producers are in different continents or constantly hopping around the country and globe. However, I think nearly all of those processes happen out of necessity. The way we work is to use the process as a creative tool – it’s the element of surprise and the liberation of ideas - working collaboratively in a duo or group but with ideas sprouting solo in the first instance.

Najia Bagi: Since telling more people about how we work I have found that often people say that they email each other with musical ideas. I suppose it’s different with this project because the entire process is via the web. I think people gravitate towards working with each other in person if they can.

NT: You’re supported on the tour by different artists from hip hop to trip hop to electronica; how did you select these supports & how do they complement your own style?

NB: Well, we did some research into what was happening in the cities we are going to be performing in (as in we asked people we trusted what they thought was good). Dave found the Manchester support (Dayse & Aver) actually! He had seen them somewhere else and was really impressed. Tullis knew of Hive Collective in Liverpool and Neko Neko (Leeds support) is a friend of The Electronic Exchange, having supported us before and done remixes of our tracks. They’re all brilliant and we feel lucky to be working with all of them.

Patterns in the Ivy were new to us, but Hive recommended them highly and with the obvious link of electronics and vocals, we thought it would be fun to explore a different angle of what could be achieved with the same or similar instruments. I think it makes sense that all the supports are different to one another, as there are so many different influences on our music (as with all bands I suppose). In my mind, I imagine that each support will create a slightly different atmosphere for each show and that’s exciting!

NT: How would you define The Electronic Exchange’s sound compared with those of the supports for the tour? Do you feel that The Electronic Exchange has a different feel now with more input and how is the final sound similar / different?

TR: I think ours is a bit more of a mongrel – we're not solely hip hop or electronica-beats or soundscapes. I think the band is certainly going to have a different feel after this tour; who knows what we'll do next, but I think it might be a turning point.

Words & edits: Ian Pennington
TEE EP cover: Courtesy of The Electronic Exchange
Najia Bagi EP cover: Adam Dolan
Najia Bagi live photography: Ged Camera
Dayse & Aver live photography #1: Gary Brown GB Multimedia
Dayse & Aver live photography #2: Ged Camera

The Electronic Exchange's Stay Straight tour stops at Kraak Gallery on Friday 10th February, where they'll be supported by hip hop duo Dayse & Aver. The gig is sandwiched between shows in Leeds and Liverpool.

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