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Go BackSMOKE RISES - An upfront Alex Smoke sorts out the 'Prima Materia' from a bunch of piss!

Posted: 29/11/06 13:31

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 The classically trained electronic musician Alex Menzies aka Alex Smoke could boast of a prolific output – if he wanted. Whilst frequently flying around the globe as a DJ, he has remixed in the region of 20 tracks over the last two years, including Depeche Mode and Mylo.

He won a legion of new supporters with his critically acclaimed debut album, Incommunicado, released on Soma Records in March 2005. And in March of this year he unleashed another collection of gems, Paradolia, as well as completing his first Radio 1 Essential Mix. Fast-forward a few months to November and Alex's first official mix album, Sci.Fi.Hi.Fi., arrived on Soma. Now, as we look forward to another year, we are still appreciating the soulful depths of the powerful Paradolia as its fourth single, Prima Materia, is turned loose and plays out for your aural pleasure right here. 

Despite all of the above, or perhaps because of it, the super-talented but mega-modest 27-year-old rising star of techno (and beyond) is unlikely to be found boasting about his achievements. In fact, he remains wary of publicity, which we thought was quirky for an artist with such an escalating profile. So on an experimental mission to find out more about Smoke and his emotionally charged music, the Voice got on the blower to Alex. He was busy at home in Glasgow, Scotland, making music and tea, but graciously didn't mind us disturbing him with a phoner to know more...

Hi Alex, how are you and where are you as we speak, and what are your plans for the week?
"I'm grand. I'm in my flat, making tea. Aye, rock 'n' roll. This week I'll be mainly sitting around my gaff, making tunes. Nothing too stressful, just the usual."    

Are you going to hit us with a third album in 2007 and have you had any crazy remix offers yet?
"It's not like I get Madonna ringing up and offering me 20 grand for a remix, it's more likely to be friends wanting a freebie, but I'm going to chill out a bit on the remix front. Apart from working with friends, where it's impossible to say 'no'. However, if I get to remix original tracks and people that I like, then, yeah, of course I'm going to continue."  

"On the album front, I'm just finishing a hip-hop album that hasn't got a home yet, so I will have to have a look at that. But yes, I'll be working on another Alex Smoke album, maybe for a release at the end of next year. I'm also setting up a label next year, so that album will come out on that label at some point in 2007, or if not in the first part of 2008."   

What's the new label called and what will your first release be?
"We've still not decided. I'm actually not very good at self-promotion, so we'll probably think up a name about a week before we start releasing music. I guess we'll see how it goes."  

Jim Hutchinson at Soma HQ tells us that you recently worked on an experimental hip-hop album with the Shadowhuntaz, is that the project you mentioned?
"Yeah, hopefully it will get picked up by someone. It's great to do different things – some purely for fun. It doesn't matter if it makes me money or not. The guy who does the vocals lives in L.A, so we worked together in a transatlantic way, sending each other parts and ideas."  

Did DJing come before producing for you, and how did you arrive at these ways of life?
"When I first started DJing I really wanted to be a producer, but I just had to wait because I didn't have the means at the time: basically, I didn't have a computer. So although I started DJing first, I am more of a producer than a DJ. That's just the way it is."   

Is it true that you designed the sleeves for both Incommunicado and Paradolia?
"Yeah, I'm a control freak I don't want to do it again though. A professional should really do a better job. But if I've got an idea in my head, I like to do it myself. I'm a control freak, what can I say?"  

So do you enjoy the art of graphic design?
"I've always had an interest in graphic design and art in general. For me, it was logical: these things go hand in hand. The cover goes with the content, the visual sense and the musical sense. So you may perceive weird similarities between the two things, even though they are totally disparate." 

And just what is on the cover of Paradolia?
"(Alex chuckles) Well, it started out as a valve, from a valve amp, from the trial valves before transistors. They look like light bulbs and kind of glow as they are working. I just played about with it a lot in Photoshop and added extra circles and things. It was no big deal. To me, the valve simply represents warmth and analogue niceness."  

You're evidently proud to be based in Glasgow, so how much do you think that environment has influenced your melodic, melancholic sound, perhaps like how people talk about the reflection of Detroit in techno?
"It's hard to say. There could be an element of truth to that. I guess it could be a factor: the geography of sound. Like music from Sweden/Scandinavia seems to have a certain quality about it. But really, a lot of things feed into my sound."  

How has your classical background shaped the electronic music producer in you?
"It's probably one of the biggest influences of all. You live with that music and it becomes engrained in you. Your sense of melody and harmony feeds from pastoral music. It's definitely affected how I use instruments. I use real instruments as well as synths and stuff."   

What similarities or differences between the two (classical + electronic) do you find interesting?
"There are many similarities. And the differences are mainly to do with loops. With modern software and production techniques you always end up working in loops; you're working to a quantisation. With classical music everything is more free flowing and there's a lot more variation, from one thing to the next. To be honest, I'm more from the repetition school. There are crossovers between the two, but the approaches to each are very different. I think I approach things as an electronic musician."  

Your second album, Paradolia, on Soma, is bound to feature on a few 'end of year' lists in 2006, but what albums have touched you this year?
"My favourites include Chris Clark's Body Riddle, on Warp, which is totally brilliant. And there's another album called Burial, on Hyperdub. Then there's this guy called Greg Haines, who just last week released his amazing album, Slumber Tides. It's a modern composition, a combination of classical instruments and electronics, and it's really nice."  

What's your take on the title of Prima Materia (playing now) and can you tell us more about the track: the instruments/the remixes?
"The name is like from the alchemists and Prima Materia is the starting point for all basic matter, if you like. Instrument wise, I didn't take too much care with the programming. I mean, it's not supposed to sound like real cellos or anything; the cellos are sequenced and it's quite techno. Then you've got some violins on top and some basic drum machine programming. It's a combination of straightforward beats and classical instruments. We will be releasing another track, Always & Forever, from my Sci.Fi.Hi.Fi. mix, with this single and there will also be a harder remix for the dancefloor from me."  

How did you mix your new DJ album, Sci.Fi.Hi.Fi. (Vol. 3), and did you start with an intro/sample saying, 'stick with the ancient ways, old school ways' as a reference to some of the tracks included?
"No, but I can understand why you would assume that, as a reference to Detroit. The intro is by Porn Sword Tobacco, but the claustrophobic track actually containing that sample is called Gutted, and it is by Burial, from one of my favourite albums of the year. It's a sample of a samurai from Ghost Dog, a film by Jim Jarmusch. 

"It's a rough 'n' ready mix, mixed using vinyl, CDs and Ableton. Admittedly, it's not really my finest hour as a DJ, but you can tell it was done live. Some of my favourite DJ mixes over the years have been full of mistakes, but that can be good, if it has got soul and it's not too clean. If nothing else, no one can ever accuse me of being too clean!"  

You've been known to use your own vocals in your productions, but would you ever consider singing live at DJ gigs, a la Green Velvet for example, to present songs (like Make My Day or Never Want to See You Again) from your album, Paradolia?
"There's no chance! I really would like to sing live, because it would make the shows more interesting, but fuck that. I'm too scared. Green Velvet is an outgoing nutter and I'm not like that. There's no way I'm getting up on stage; I prefer to hide behind my laptop." 

Have you played or visited Ibiza before and if so what's your impression of the island?
"Yes, last year I played at Cocoon, at Amnesia. And this year I played at Space, on the terrace, which was cool. We then went to DC10 afterwards... I've also been to Ibiza on holiday with some reprobate friends before and realise it can be a bit full on at times, but I still enjoy it. It's much maligned but it's got a nice atmosphere and some great music."  

We can't see a booking for 31st December 2006/1st January 2007 in your diary yet. What are your plans for the holiday, surely as a DJ it's one of your busiest, most lucrative times?
"I'm going to Florence with my girlfriend. I'm taking a full month off, from the middle of December to the middle of January. So yeah, I'm going to see my family, and spend some time with my friends and my girlfriend. I'm going to have a drink and hang about. I don't give a fuck, I want a holiday." 

David Lynch, or rather a fan site for Mr Lynch, is among your MySpace friends; do you enjoy his films and would you like to score a soundtrack sometime?
"Absolutely. I'm a total film geek. And David Lynch just has his own thing going on. His films are vivid and bright, but at the same time they aren't obvious. You know, I would love to score a soundtrack, that's definitely where I want to go in the years ahead." 

Your press shots by Andrea Macarthy are very 'urban Glasgow 2006' and you never engage the viewer by looking into the lens. But somehow, through appearing distant to the media, you have become even more 'marketable' by being yourself, un-manipulated, real. So how do you feel about this strangeness and what is the story with the Smoke moniker?
"Techno artists always have urban press photos, it kinda goes with territory. But to be honest I hate all that posing for the camera, and if I never had to do it again I would be over the moon. Well, it is all a bunch of piss, isn't it? I'm not gonna get arsey about it, and know why people need photos, but in many ways I would prefer to be faceless. Anyway, the golden rule in life is to be yourself, no matter what. And as for the Smoke story? Well, it's very boring, I'm afraid to say. I don't even smoke, really. It was a friend who came up with the name Smoke, but there was already an artist called Smoke, so I just added the Alex." 

Sci.Fi.Hi.Fi. is out now and Prima Materia from Alex's second album, Paradolia, out soon on Soma. 


Words by Loco Rites