Daniel Avery interview: "I'd return to this idea of light emerging from dark, hope emerging from fear; music has always been that."
Today sees the release of Song For Alpha, the second full length album from Daniel Avery. It comes a long five years after the release of his debut, Drone Logic, which cemented him as one of the poster boys of British techno. In the interim he has been present on the DJing circuit, but has been patiently biding his time in creating his follow up, ensuring that he had a complete and satisfying whole before releasing it to the world. It's an album that shows off his techno chops while also shedding light on his skills as an ambient producer, and many other spaces in between.
We caught up with Daniel to talk about the long process of creating Song For Alpha, his plans for DJing and touring in the future, David Lynch and more.
I wanted to preface our chat first with a couple of questions about your debut album Drone Logic. You’ve said you can hear a younger version of yourself when you listen to it, and that it's not fully realised compared to Song For Alpha. Can you talk about that some more?
I think it's quite an urgent sounding album, and to me it sounds like a first album; someone who's been building a lot up over the years and then it all just comes out in a flurry on that record. I'm still very fond of the album, listening back to it now it still sounds like an honest record by me at the time; it's exactly who I was at that moment. When I say "urgent" I think it has a restless energy to it. Obviously I don't feel as if I have that in me so much anymore, but I do look back on it fondly.
The title Drone Logic suggests a nihilistic viewpoint, was it a commentary on society in any way?
It was no commentary whatsoever, it was something that Keith Richards said about he'd discovered a new way of playing guitar that was based on Indian drone music and he used the phrase "drone logic." It just comes from that, really.
Where does the title Song For Alpha come from?
Song For Alpha is something very personal to me. It's an ode to something that I love from my past that has been with me in my life for a long time. I'm not gonna say any more about it, but the thing to take from it is that it's an ode to something that's been very important to me in my life.
The songs on Song For Alpha are also something you’ve been living with for a long time, is that how it’s connected?
I think, if anything, I feel as if Song For Alpha has become some sort of love letter to patience. That's how I've been viewing it recently. I've been making music since Drone Logic came out, and I must have close to a hundred tracks that I've made in that time period. I had to wait for Song For Alpha, for all of the new album, to emerge, really. It was something that I had to learn, because it took its time to unveil itself and to eventually find me. I knew very early on that I didn't want to make Drone Logic Part 2; I had no interest in doing that, I wanted to make something new that was true to who I was now, but it turned out that it took a long time. You can set everything up in your studio, but sometimes you just have to wait. I do believe now that eventually music finds you, and when those golden moments do hit then they're the moments that get you through, and that's how I feel about Song For Alpha in general; the completion of it felt entirely necessary at that point in my life. It definitely was some kind of light in the darkness after so many years of trying to make something. When it came it felt like a special moment to me.
Were there a lot of frustrating moments along the way when you just wished for it to be done?
There were, but what I've come to realise is that those bad days are every bit as important as the good ones. They all feed into what eventually comes out. There's something else I learned along the way, which is that you can work on something for a week and throw it all on the fire, but you still learned something about yourself at the end of it. That was something that I've learned over the course of making this record.
You mentioned light in the darkness, this album to me is an album of contrasts; there's a lot of light and dark, hard songs next to soft songs, even the cover art - was that one of your intentions?
Yeah, it was the theme that I kept returning to, this idea of light emerging from dark, like some kind of hope emerging from fear, and to me music has always been that light in my life. It's those things in life that just get you through, really. There's no overt statement culturally or socially or politically, it's nothing to do with that, it's far more abstract and a broader idea than that, this idea of those moments when it feels like music can grab you by the hand and take you to a better place.
I was wondering about tracks like 'Slow Fade' and 'Stereo L'; they're not quite ambient, not quite techno, where do you place them?
I don't know how I would describe them, but what was interesting to me about when those tracks unveiled themselves, they were influenced by the club, they're influenced by techno, they have the warm, deep kicks throughout them, they have the walls of reverb, they have techno hi hats from 808s and 909s, but at the same time I believe those tracks are influenced as much by ambient music as they are techno. Those moments where those lines intersect became interesting for me on this album. So I don't know how I would describe them, but I think they've been informed by several different things at the same time.
Are you prepared for a lot of people comparing some of these tracks to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works?
It's one of my favourite records ever, but Song For Alpha was not intentionally made like that at all. I think [Selected Ambient Works] has seeped into who I am, and it seeped in at a very early age, so it's not shocking for me that some people hear it in what I do. But at the same time I think it's equally influenced by acts like William Basinski or Brian Eno. Also it's equally influenced by a load of modern techno. I think it's all part of it.
You said you have a hundred tracks, did you ever think about dividing them up and making different albums of different styles, or was it always going to be just one?
It was always going to be just one; I knew that from pretty early on. It had to be a complete whole, something that said something true about me right now. It's a good question because it must have crossed my mind to do that, but I wasn't going to be satisfied unless I had a new LP to present, and it had to work as a whole together. It took a long time, but I'm glad I waited because the thing that came out at the end, I wasn't expecting it to sound like this, but I'm very pleased with how it's come together.
Is it your preference that people listen to it from beginning to end?
Absolutely, yeah, I would encourage that all the time. That's how it was conceived and designed and how it developed. Again it goes back to patience; it's one of my favourite things about an album - you put it on and you start your journey, or you sit down and you let it unfold in front of you. The best records are the ones that present worlds in which you can fall into deeper and deeper, and then you can only really start to escape once the record is finished. For me they're the records that stay in your head for the longest time. So it's vitally important to me that it's presented as a whole, and I encourage everyone to listen to it like that.
What do you think would be the ideal setting for to listen to it?
I don't know exactly. I think anywhere where you can find a space to breathe. That could be anywhere, it could be travelling or in your house or wherever. Again something that I kept returning to on this record is the idea of those moments where you can find space to breathe and find a new perspective on things, because those moments have been vitally important to me during the creation of this record, and I believe that you can hear it on the album itself.
In the techno field, albums aren't necessarily the go-to format, and you've already explained your love of albums, but do you feel any impetus to release 12"s sometimes?
I'm not against the idea, but for me the album just feels like the perfect way for me to show who I am. I love techno music, but I do feel like it's only one part of who I am, so the album just gives me the opportunity to express myself in a much more satisfying way.
When you're making tracks, how early on do you know if it's going to be one for the club or one for contemplation?
It kind of comes out naturally. The most fruitful studio sessions are always the ones where you go in with no preconceptions whatsoever and you just feel the energy of the music and it feels like you're travelling somewhere together and neither one of you is fully in control of the other. It's difficult to describe with words I've found, but it's definitely not based on preconceptions and notions of where you want it to go, you just have to let it do its own thing sometimes.
Were there any tracks on the album that really surprised you with the way they came out?
The track 'Diminuendo', which is the most overtly techno thing on the album, that track went through several different stages. I'd had the drums for a couple of years, and they were behind an entirely different track. It had something good about it, but it never got finished. So one day I just started to dissect it a bit and see what worked, and the drums just started playing on their own, and I noticed "this is something different." These drums sounded like they weren't at home on the other track, they had this groove to it and pulse and energy to it that immediately sounded like a techno track. Then 'Diminuendo' got made in about 90 minutes after that. All it took was the energy of those drums and the respect that those drums were in the wrong place before, and when they found their true home in 'Diminuendo' all the other techno parts just fell into place. It's moments like that that inspire me the most in the studio, where it felt as if it just had to happen. Once it was given its own space, this music, it happened so naturally and so quickly. They really inspire me, those moments.
That's awesome, I love that track. I especially love the part where it feels like it's ending, it goes into a sort of My Bloody Valentine-esque distorted soundscape and then you bring it back - that happened in that 90 minutes?
It did. Again that was a couple of ideas coming together. It did happen in those 90 minutes, but I'd had this idea in my head of a techno track sounding like it's falling down a black hole and taking you with it, and then re-emerging extremely quickly and you're back on railroad tracks, and that just seemed like the perfect opportunity to do it.
What is the oldest piece of music on this album?
I can't remember exactly, but I know for a fact the track 'Projector' must be over three years old, or a version of it began over three years ago. There's also stuff that was made within the final two weeks of finishing the album. It was a real mixture in that regard. But I would say the album as a whole, when it came together, that was a very quick process. Once that energy started flowing it really was a fast process.
What happens to the tracks that don't make it?
What's interesting for me is that there will be some that will never see the light of day, but I'm fine with that. But the interesting thing for me, from being "away" for so long, it feels really exciting now for me to be able to get a lot of music out there this year, and that's what's going to happen. Much like the Slow Fade EP that had 3 tracks that aren't on the album, there's going to be a lot more like that this year; tracks that I really love but just didn't work in the whole picture of Song For Alpha. So there's going to be a lot coming out, and that feels like a rush for me.
Have you got any plans for remixes or has anyone already remixed anything from this album yet?
Yeah, we just got the first batch out. Surgeon has done a remix, Actress has done a remix, and a new producer called Inga Mauer who’s from Russia, she's one of my favourite new DJs and producers; they're the first lot. We have many more coming. I'm a big fan of the remix. I'm a big fan of just handing someone your work and seeing their interpretations and seeing how they view it. So there's more coming, there's some really exciting ones just around the corner.
How do you reach out to people to do it?
It kind of just happens. A lot of it happens just from the electronic music community, which is quite tight. Just from talking to people and meeting people over the years. It's all part of being a piece of the community.
Have you started playing some of these songs from the album in your DJ sets yet?
I've been playing 'Diminuendo' for probably a year, and 'Sensation' around the same amount of time. What's been interesting to me is that the past couple of years I've been playing these extended all night long sets, from doors opening to the very end, and that could be 8, 9, 10 hours sometimes. It's fascinating to me to see people come in and sometimes lie on the floor as I play drone music for two hours. And then those same people are still there 5 hours later and it's an acid rave. But there's still a line being drawn between every track that's played, and the goal for me is to draw that line throughout the night and also make sense. So I've found that whole idea very inspiring in the making of this album, and now it's nice to go back and to be doing these all night sets and to be able to play everything from the album in an extended DJ set. It's pleasing to pull it back into a space that inspired the record.
You're doing one of those extended sets at York Hall. Do you know much about the space?
I've been there once for a gig. It's not really used for raves, but it's quite an enchanting building inside. It's an amazing space and it's kind of a blank canvas. Something that I've wanted to do for a while is to have a room where it really feels as if everyone is on the same level, and for it to feel very inclusive, because that's one of my favourite things about the best clubs. So we're putting the DJ booth in the middle of the floor, the idea being that everyone can find their own space, and it's not about a DJ on a stage. It's this idea that everyone in the room has an important part to play in the night, and everyone really is just searching for some kind of higher energy in the room, including the DJ. It's a communal activity. We'll see how it goes, but I'm excited.
Do you think the space will have an effect on what you play?
It could do. I don't what that would be, but that's one of my favourite things about DJing is that every gig is different, and being able to feed off the energy of the room is part of it.
And then at the complete opposite end of the spectrum is a slot like Field Day, where you'll have a much shorter set and a very different atmosphere. What's that challenge like?
It's one that I still love doing; to read that energy, it's entirely different, but I love it equally, I really do.
Have you thought about doing a live show?
Honestly, up until recently it was something that I just never really felt in my heart. But, with the completion of this new record, something has changed inside me, and there's an idea forming quite quickly. It's gonna be a way off yet, but I can feel something happening.
Were there any books or films or anything like that that might have influenced you in some way while making the album?
I've always been a huge fan of David Lynch, but in the final year of making this album his work ethic, more than anything else, came back in an important way in my life. He's an artist who does everything entirely on his own terms, and creates these worlds that you're invited to, but that's as far as the invitation is extended. He feels no need to explain every aspect of his world, and part of the beauty of getting lost inside these worlds is being lost, is not understanding every single element of it. I find that inspiring. In no way does he bow to any kind of pressure, he just does exactly what he wants on his own terms, and in that respect he can't ever lose. So the second I ever started thinking, even just for a split second, that tracks should be made for a purpose or certain audiences should be thought about, someone like David Lynch is just a great reset button because that way of thinking is irrelevant when it comes to being creative. I have to say that I've never come close to giving in to those pressures, but I can see that they do exist. So yeah, I think Lynch is the greatest of his generation.
I love David Lynch as well. Do you have a favourite of his?
I recently got back into Lost Highway. I don't know if it's my favourite, but I absolutely love that film. It's a mindfuck.
Lastly, do you think it'll be another 5 years before we get another album?
I don't think so, no, it doesn't feel like that. It feels as if there's a momentum and I feel inspired right now, and the way in which Song For Alpha came together, that final process, has been so inspiring for me that I've already started working on new music. So I don't believe it will be 5 years.
Daniel Avery’s Song For Alpha is out now on Phantasy Sound.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 6th April 2018.