The Place Outside: Alex Smoke on Love Over Will

No stranger to these pages over the years, Glasgow-based producer Alex Smoke discusses the enduring influence of classical music and his evolving relationship with dancefloor sounds on latest record Love Over Will.

Feature by Ronan Martin | 14 Jan 2016
  • Alex Smoke

“There’s nothing left for us to do. There’s nothing left for us to see.”

Introducing his latest album, Love Over Will, in characteristically detached fashion, Alex Smoke’s seemingly resigned lyrics on opener Fair is Foul clearly don’t reflect any lack of musical ambition on the part of the artist. Rather, with each new project he takes on – be it pulsing dancefloor techno, the more cerebral mood music of his Wraetlic series, or installation and soundtrack work – the producer doesn’t seem to see an end to his creative evolution on the horizon any time soon.

Released on the ever-eminent R&S towards the end of January, Love Over Will will be Alex Menzies' fourth album under the Smoke guise and it’s perhaps his most personal sounding yet. This more intimate feel is achieved in large part by a liberal use of the Glasgow-based artist’s own voice, which in the past has almost always been heavily masked by effects and distortion.

The influence of Wraetlic on Love Over Will

“I still like it most when it’s obscured in a way,” he explains. There are indeed plenty of examples of heavy processing throughout the new work, which is as grippingly claustrophobic as ever. Yet it would seem he has grown more comfortable with the use of his own utterings over the years, first leading to the completely vocal-driven Wraetlic outing in 2013 and culminating with what is a bold new album for 2016. “I just got excited about that whole process of writing songs,” he explains. “You tend to get yourself in a creative flow where you’re excited by certain things and you’ll stick with that for as long as it’s still exciting to you. So the vocal tracks follow on from Wraetlic. I just kept on going, but I think I’ve got it out of my system now.”

Of course, as well as allowing for different possibilities sonically, the use of sung elements can potentially make electronic music more thematically overt. Whether or not that is a desirable outcome is another thing altogether though, as he's quick to point out. “I’ve always been a bit cagey about vocals,” he says, noting that he doesn’t like to tell people what is actually being said in much of his work. “It kind of dictates how they take it. Also, it’s personal – it’s funny to say that, because you’re releasing it, but still.”

Smoke does reveal that much of the content of his lyrics is political, at least to the extent that it reflects his feelings on the current state of the world, though you’ll not find the kind of clumsily specific references which can weigh too heavy on a listener’s own interpretation. A preference for a stream-of-consciousness approach – “You know, random pish” – plays a big part in how he pens his lines.

“Even random pish has a certain something about it which I like. A few people I like do that that as well – though they do it better than me – the Cocteau Twins, for example. The vocals probably make no literal sense, but they have a certain feeling about them.”

On the subject of feeling, and the overall vibe in much of Smoke’s work, it can be hard to escape using terms such as ‘moody’ and ‘introspective’ and there has clearly always been a gloomy quality to his tracks. At times wistful and soft, at others almost exhibiting a detached cynicism – 'I never really cared about you anyway,' he utters in languid fashion on the album’s opener – much of the vocal content provides the perfect accompaniment to Menzies’ compositions, which always seem to lean towards the melancholic, in the best possible way. Even his accomplished early dancefloor work, released on the likes of Soma and Vakant, was marked by icy minimalism as opposed to anthemic euphoria.

Essentially, you could be forgiven as a listener for forming an impression of Smoke as a particularly pessimistic or joyless character. Yet in conversation he is anything but. “That’s what everyone says,” he reveals laughing, before stressing that he tends to be “totally upbeat” – regardless of how people might interpret his work. “Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re creating, it comes from a place outside,” he explains. “You’re not fully in charge of that. The way my music comes out is kind of melancholy and that’s also what I like to listen to. I don’t like a lot of overtly cheerful music. It kind of nauseates me a bit. But it’s not because I’m a miserable cunt!

“It’s a funny one – there have been times in my life when I have been quite stressed out and not necessarily in a good place and that’s when I’ve maybe produced more upbeat music without even meaning to. It’s one of those things.”

Alex Smoke on classical music

As consistent a feature of Smoke’s music as his preference for sombre sounds and deeply enigmatic lyrics, is his drawing upon classical influences to galvanize his sound. The new record, as with previous outings, finds him utilising strings and brass alongside more synthetic elements, creating some of the best moments of the album in the process. The title track, Love Over Will, has a particularly grand feel to it, with commanding horns set against taut strings and a plodding heartbeat of a kick drum. One of the few tracks without vocals, it’s power comes entirely through his ability to merge organic and electronic sounds to great effect. Galdr also stands out for its elegant strings set amid distorted percussive parts and muted synths.

Having struggled to maintain an interest in playing various instruments to begin with, he developed a passion for more classical sounds after joining a cathedral choir as a youngster. This interest has always informed his music thereafter, though he stresses that not all classics find their way into his affections. “The word classical covers such a vast gamut of music – some of it is shite and twee and naff,” he insists. “Just because it’s famous and written hundreds of years ago doesn’t mean that it’s not shite. There is some really awful music.

“It’s funny, as I’ve got older, I’ve got into it again but in a different way; I’m looking for different things in it. There’s so much experimental orchestral music which is fascinating because it’s people approaching sound the way that I would approach sound. You’re looking for texture and some kind of sense of feeling, without necessarily thinking of melody and harmony in the usual ways. It’s a rich ground.”

Rather than in themes or composition, it’s clearly his ever-evolving approach to sound itself and the shift in the overall production style of his work which has been the key change since early albums Incommunicado and Paradolia. “I really can’t help myself,” he says when asked about his increasing use of grainier textures throughout his work. “When I was making the first two albums, I was heavily influenced by the dancefloor stuff that was doing it for me at the time – what we were calling click house and what later became the minimal stuff. There was lots of space and clean production and I really loved that. I liked the aesthetic of it.

“Over time, I have grown away from it and I’m much more interested in a kind of textured sound and trying to create something that is almost like an organic process, but [doing it] electronically. I’m quite interested in that meeting between real instruments and real sounds and those that are artificially created in the computer but which also have that organic element; that rough, chaotic element.”

Software and technology: "You're never as smart as you think"

At present, Smoke strives to achieve that imposing sound through a relatively simple set-up, combining various software programs with a small modular synth. Far from seeming hung up on the technology itself, he seems to have a healthy idea of what he needs and how he can utilise it to the fullest. “Software is open-ended and it’s really down to your imagination what you do with it,” he says. “I like that aspect of it. But the modular is good because it gives you that hands-on, direct feel. The sound is almost physical. You can almost feel it.

“Of course, as with everything, you’re never as smart as you think you are and it’s the accidents that end up being the most amazing sounding things. There are very few people who would say that they went to a synth like that and came up with exactly what they were going for. It’s not really the point. It’s about playing about with the parameters and plugging things in backwards and feedback and all of that stuff – it’s experimentation and that’s really a healthy thing for music.”

More than anything else, what comes across in the album and in conversation is his continual growth as an artist – a path which continues to see him move away from the dancefloor, or at least away from the most narrow conceptions of what club music is and can be. “I still DJ and I still like clubs and dancefloor music,” he explains. “It’s very rare in any scene to have that kind of immediacy and there is a purpose for people to be there. It’s also a group thing as well – there’s a group consciousness. It’s a special thing. So I’ve always loved dancing and clubs, but my natural proclivities these days are more towards music to listen to.”

This evolution in his approach seems quite necessary if he is to avoid falling into the potential “trap” of a career as an electronic producer: “People that don’t think ahead can end up on the wheel, where their only living is from playing clubs.” Whilst that can be enjoyable, and can be kept going indefinitely, it’s not something Smoke wants to limit himself to and it’s clear to hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about branching more into installation and soundtrack work. “This is where my strengths lie,” he explains. “I really love sound and picture and the way sound interacts with visuals.”

Alex Smoke on maintaining his identity

Hoping to make more inroads into that kind of work – he has already been commissioned to produce music for a BBC project due out next year – Alex is nonetheless wary of the pitfalls of losing your identity within that world too. “You can see the way the film and tv industries are going – the same as with the dancefloor. The market is saturated with people doing it. Every fucker sounds the same and there’s also an expectation for everyone to sound the same. The commissioner will tell you they want it to sound like fucking Inception or something.

“It’s a race to the bottom. Of course, if everyone owns the same instruments and the same samples and everyone is trying to sound the same, you end up with this ridiculous monoculture of utter shite. So it’s also a challenge to find the jobs you really want to work on and the people you want to work with – people who actually want to give you a bit of space and a bit of free reign to create something actually worthwhile.”

Alex Smoke’s enthusiasm for every facet of his work is clear from the moment he starts speaking. Even if his dancefloor persona is not as pronounced as when he started out, his recent EPs for R&S as well as the dub edits set to be released alongside the album, are sufficient proof of his remaining techno prowess. But far from being caught in his comfort zone, he talks of being “liberated” when approaching soundtrack and installation work and is clear about his desire to evolve further into such territory. “That’s where my heart lies at the moment,” he says, and you can be certain he will continue to bring a deeply personal feel to any project he takes on.

Love Over Will is released by R&S Records on 22 Jan