Slam on their experimental new album Athenæum 101
We speak to Stuart McMillan – one half of Glasgow techno mainstays Slam – about the duo's new experimental album, Athenæum 101
The Skinny: Firstly, let’s talk about 101 beats per minute. Why have you chosen that particular tempo for the new album, which explores "left field electronica, ambient, dub and experimental" over 61 continuous minutes?
Stuart McMillan: Orde [Meikle] and I had both spoken about doing an album at that tempo for a few years now. There is no specific reason why it should have been that tempo per se, other than that we are both huge fans of dub reggae and I liked the idea of fusing a Jamaican dub ethos with electronic music, mainly because of the space that tempo allows within the sounds and textures. Also it is the antithesis of what we would normally do. Taking the tempo down and using a similar process to the way we normally make our club tracks gives the genre a different usage and changes the feel completely.
For context, what BPM range would your productions usually fall into?
We would be anywhere between 125 and 135 BPM for club tracks. Although, as a DJ I'm playing some older stuff now that sits quite well at 140! I like the uncompromising nature of fast, banging techno in a club. It takes the listener to a different place on the dancefloor. It becomes very primal, hypnotic and frenzied at the same time. But this new album isn't necessarily about dancing so there's no need for it to be that fast.
How would you like listeners to approach the record? Is it a late night, continuous listen with a glass of wine kind of experience?
A glass of wine, a joint, whatever! We didn't envisage any particular place or environment. Personally, it was our downtime album for listening to when we weren't DJing. On the road, travelling through airports or whatever. Maybe it's the album you listen to when you return home from the club, as opposed to the one you play to get ready to go out.
What inspired or motivated you to produce and release this new album? Can you tell us a bit about the circumstances, mood and emotions that went into it?
I think it's fair to say our dancefloor output has been relatively prolific lately. A lot of our time is spent either researching music or making music to play in a club. We had a few weeks off just before the summer and wanted a new challenge, and rather than just go in the studio and create more dancefloor tracks we decided to approach this album in a different way.
It's reflective too, as this year I found myself at a bit of a crossroads emotionally, mainly due to my father passing away among some other things. I needed an escape, and to find a release to create something different. The concept for this record has been floating around in our collective psyches for quite some time now. We both felt it was a good time to approach it again, as we have attempted to start it in the past but were always sidetracked with other things. The way the album was made commanded that it was given full attention over a short period of time.
Where was it recorded and how long did it take? What was the writing process for you as a duo?
It was recorded in my home studio and was done over two two-week periods. The way we generally work together is through a series of jamming sessions, then we catch the good moments and piece them together. This approach [to the album] was untraditional for us in that we started with one idea, which in turn inspired what happened next, then so on and so forth; a bit like [what] you would do when you choose a new record or change the mood within a DJ set.
There are no traditional tracks per se, it is kind of one long track. Each new section often borrows from the piece that has gone before to create something new. We made the decision not to split the tracks up because: (a) there wasn't really always a clear definition of when each new piece began and finished, and (b) in the current culture of downloads, we thought it would be a nice idea to try to create something which had to be essentially listened to in its entirety.
Can you tell us more about the album title, Athenæum 101?
We wanted to use Athenæum as an alias for this particular project initially, but adopted it for the title instead. The origin is ancient Greek and is often used in reference to a library or place of scientific study. We liked the idea of using this in the title because the album is a collection of sequences, noises and percussive hooks that individually mean nothing, but when pieced together tell a story over time.
The album artwork is a set of symbols and numbers engraved in real wood; where did that idea come from?
The artwork has four ambiguous symbols on the front. The use of wood and the design are purely architectural. We were working towards a design that we felt suited the music and so the finish and symbology are mainly there for aesthetic reasons. However, the numerical countdown on the back sleeve is relative to the timings where we feel there is a significant change in mood between the music on the album. When we wrote these out we thought it made a great design feature.
Are you at all concerned about how your more die-hard techno fans will react to the record? Is commercial appeal something that comes into the equation when you’re formulating a new release?
No, not at all. People who know us know we have an infinite love of experimental music. There have been elements of that in previous albums of ours, Reverse Proceed being the best example. I think most people have more depth than to just want to listen to full-on techno all day. I suppose this album is deliberately more esoteric than previous albums, but that's why I personally like this one more than the others, it's not trying to be too many things.
I hear a lot of techno albums which are just a collection of tracks. The bangers, the electro track, the EBM track, the ambient track, and so on. That in my mind doesn't become one thing or the other. It's just a collection of tracks with no real relevance to the others. Commercial appeal isn't at the forefront of our minds when making a record like this, or any other for that matter. It is usually the record we want to make and we hope others will resonate with that too.
Could this new album pave the way for more ‘left field’ Slam productions, or is it more of a one-off experiment?
Who knows? We usually get bored doing the same thing, so perhaps it's paving the way for a dark distorted dysfunctional K-pop album!
You’ve had an intense year of touring and performing – what’s next for Slam in 2019?
Heading into the studio to record a dark distorted dysfunctional K-pop album. Then we kick off 2019 in Italy, then come home for our Maximum Pressure NYD party. We're also planning next year's Riverside Festival. We're really going to concentrate on developing our live shows too; last year we played live a few times and we really started to enjoy that process again.
Athenæum 101 is out now
Maximum Pressure x NYD 2019, 1 Jan, SWG3, Glasgow