An Interview With Elite Force

You’ve got quite the catalog and a crazy number of career highlights…..where did it all kick off for you? What has the journey been like from your first release to here?

The emancipation from the tyranny of the big studios has been a great thing for creativity, but I feel it’s now swung far too far the other way.

My first release was 21 years ago on a small Techno label based out of London called “Intelligence.” Not long after that I signed, as part of a band called Flicker Noise, to the seminal Deconstruction offshoot, Concrete and then went on to form Lunatic Calm and sign to Universal, whilst at the same time beginning recording as Elite Force and setting up my first record label, Fused & Bruised in 1996.

It’s been a fascinating period to work through, given that those early releases were dependent on large studios and engineer / producer input. There were so many filters in place back then, points of quality control that insisted on certain benchmarks being met, even if people’s production capacity was relatively limited from an artist’s point of view. The emancipation from the tyranny of the big studios has been a great thing for creativity, but I feel it’s now swung far too far the other way with too little pride being shown in the finished product of many artists these days.

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You’ve done a great job of balancing that pride with a prodigious output over the years.  I’ve got admit, I’ve always sort of thought you fell nicely in the middle of a venn diagram of artist and promoter in that sense.
To what extent does being a label owner dictate your production and marketing choices.  Any thoughts on how to create something “special” in the digital age?

I think that this is the modern model that works, and I think your voice needs to be authentic. I absolutely HATE seeing artists who use 3rd party companies, or their management to ‘do social media’ for them. In doing so it’s disrespectful towards your fan base – you’re effectively saying “talk to the hand,” whereas actually as artists, we are in a golden age of communication … of being able to connect one-on-one with fans of what we do – why would you not want to do that yourself?

The idea of of ‘something special’ in the digital age … well that’s a tough nut to crack. For me it’s about looking at ways of adding value to what you do with each track you write. That could be adding to your Soundcloud / Facebook / Twitter / Mailing List fan bases, or it could be looking at subscription services (which we’ll be implementing with Stereophoenix next year). It could be adding value through scarcity … so with the Revamped releases, having high value limited edition physical products is a nice way of cultivating collectability. There are further possibilities with “experience-based” bundles, like one-off private production tutorials, private DJ sets for the highest bidders, hidden USB sticks squirrelled away at secret locations in cities that you play in. It could be offering DJs and producers additional content by way of downloadable stems, or it could be a unique, bespoke series of parties like The One Series and the Boat Parties I promote.

There are loads of options out there. Use your imagination.

What’s your most recent big project of note – I see you have a RVMPD in the works again, what can you tell us about your experience working in that medium? Have you had cool responses from the artists you’ve sampled?

By and large I’ve had very little response – a couple of takedown notices from one or two of the most notoriously grumpy producers out there. What was interesting with the first RVMPD project was trying to get tracks licensed whereby I’d used maybe 5 different tracks in a patchwork to create something new. No one really understood what I was doing, or even what I was asking for with licenses, so it took a lot of paperwork and a long time to sort everything through. That’s partly why with the second album, I just gave everything away for free – by 2012 (compared to 2010) no one was buying anything any more, so it really wasn’t worth the paperwork …

I have a new RVMPD album coming out at the turn of the year, which will be limited edition vinyl only (I might do digital at a later date if I feel like it, but that would be bundled as an album only and no individual downloads).

I also have an album I’m putting together as Simon Shackleton which is all original material of varying tempos which will be out on my Stereophoenix label early in the new year … that’s much more geared to the deeper, more tech-y and emotive side of my output, and at the moment that’s where my heart is creatively so I’m pretty excited to see that come to fruition.

A studio used to be a big desk, racks on racks of gear, expensive sequencers and thousands of dollars in outboard.  Do you still work in this way?  Have you integrated software into your existing methodology or has software taken over?

I have a mix of both – I have a fair bit of old hardware and a mixing board (32 channel Mackie). I’m not quite sure where my allegiances lie these days – generally I use software a lot more than hardware, and actually I could quite happily do away with all my synths as they integrate so poorly with my digital domain … but then software leaves me cold a lot of the time. I hate programming patches from scratch – I’ve always been more of an artist rather than a scientist so I’d rather get on with the creative aspects of what I can do with a sound, musically, rather than making the sound in the first place.

I think the balance has swung way too far towards the scientist and sound designer in recent years – there’s a lot of music out there that is cold, emotionally bankrupt, but hey, full of whooshes, bangs, whomps and overly programmed wobbles. I want heart & soul. Not laboratory precision.

I want heart & soul. Not laboratory precision.

How has the evolution of music technology influenced your workflow?

It’s made things a lot quicker. It’s made data retrieval & song recall incredibly easy. As things have moved more towards audio-based work (as opposed to MIDI & hardware), there’s a whole universe of sound at our fingertips … which is nice, but it also tends to get in the way of a good idea…. and for all the ease of use that this new musical world has opened up, it’s just as challenging as it ever was to come up with a good musical idea.

Yeah – it’s for sure still anyones game when it comes to creating something intrinsically good.  What do you do to avoid “new gear syndrome”?  Many people I know end up spending more time learning their gear than making music.

That’s a good question, and actually the correct answer is to put down the Gearwhore magazines and brand new, shiny VSTs for just a moment and ask yourself – how well do I know my musical instruments? Do I know how to properly get under the hood, to twist it into new forms … do I know exactly which machine to reach for when I’m looking for a certain sound? Is the wealth of choice I have muddying my decision-making? Do I spend most of my time daydreaming to the sounds of brand new Presets, only to find a couple of days later that they actually don’t work beyond being standalone sounds? Ditch stuff you don’t use, that you don’t understand, and you don’t need. Pare things down to the minimum. try making a track using sounds taken from just one soft synth, and have an amnesty for a year in buying anything new.

Put down the Gearwhore magazines and brand new, shiny VSTs for just a moment and ask yourself – how well do I know my musical instruments?

Do you sequence using Live?  If so, what aspects of the software brought it into your arsenal and why?  Can you share a tip with our students for working in Live (ideally something that isn’t obvious, and custom to how you work – you don’t need to give away the farm here though.)

Yes I sequence using Live – I used to use Cubase, which a bit like Logic is a scientist’s tool. Live I find to be more of an artistic tool – it encourages workflow and innovation / experimentation in a way I never found to be the case with the other two sequencers. I only really use it in Sequencer Mode, which I know is rather old school, but I never really saw the value in stacking up loops and attempting to blend them in an interesting way on the fly – I’m much more linear-orientated in the way I think about music and I find it easier to get into my loops and ideas with the cutting tool by using the Sequencing page in live.

I like Live 9 a lot – I think it’s a much smoother ride than 8 was … and there are certain new ideas like the Audio to MIDI thing which are great and continues to put Live ahead of the pack for me.

What’s one of the practical uses of the audio-to-midi for you?

Isolating acidlines and basslines is a major plus-point for me – it allows you to drill down into the groove and movement of tracks, which if you’re looking to Revamp or Remix is a really useful shortcut.

Elite Force Promo Shot

Do you produce on the road?  How do you find the experiencing of playing out informs your songwriting?

I used to do a lot more by way of production on the road – I’d get remixes started, come back with a few loops rolling … but actually now I do so much DJ’ing, any spare time I have whilst I’m travelling tends to be geared more to DJ edits and processing tunes for my sets.

The process of playing out is absolutely fundamental to my songwriting, and I can always hear music that’s made by boffins as opposed to music that’s made by boffins who DJ. the only way to understand the nature of the dance floor and the groove that it lives off, is to put yourself in the centre of the frame, and play, and play, and play. It’s the only way to acquire the knowledge base you need to really grasp what the people respond to.

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What’s your most indispensable piece of kit / software?

Probably my two Apogee Ensembles and my PSX100 A/D converter. When you mix outside of the box, the converters and soundcards are key to getting a great quality sound.

What live experience has had the most influence on you?  I’m assuming a certain group of Distrikt goers has something to do with it!

I’ve had some really awe-inspiring experiences over the years, but the absolute clincher for me was playing the Saturday night at Opulent Temple at Burning Man in 2009, my first Burn. It was an atheist’s religious experience, and acted as the portal to many more since … many of those at Burning Man.

Being a core part of the Distrikt camp at Burning Man has taught me a huge amount, about creativity, about drive, motivation and about selflessness. Along with other sets that I’ve done in the desert, I’ve learnt that there can be a spiritual dimension to playing music to people, and it’s given me something to aspire to week in week out wherever I play. I’ve always *hated* people’s obsession with genres and with narrow-minded tramlines – I’ve never had time for that – but musically speaking it’s helped me reach much further within myself to discover where the real heart & soul lives in putting together sets of music that truly resonate with people.

Since 2009 there’s been an absolute joy at play in the way I make music, and in the way I play and select music for my DJ sets. The only times where I don’t feel that, or when I struggle much more to feel that, is when I’m booked to play places where people’s tastes have become a monoculture … where only one style is tolerated.

The monoculture has often been a way in which tastemakers have tried to quantify dance music.  It’s always seemed to me to be totally disconnected from the true underground aspect of the culture, which is rife with cross pollination.  Do you see the current upheaval of “edm culture” being a part of the monoculture or is it a step forward because of the multiplicity of sounds?

EDM is a perfect storm really. It’s the sound of Electronic Music GATECRASHING the mainstream in America in the crudest and most direct way. For years and years Electronic Music had no place on the radios of the US. Now, suddenly, it does … and the race for the big bucks and mass exposure has seen something of a race to the bottom in the search for the golden ticket – the Lowest Common Denominator.

It’s interesting looking at a single genre, like Electro House for example, to appreciate how HUGE the change has been in the past 8 years. in 2005, Bookashade was termed “Electro House” … those same tracks would probably be termed ‘Deep House’ now. Deep House and Electronica have become refuges for the ultra-harsh mainstream, ADHD, overly-wrought and overly-programmed commercial music that Electro, Dubstep, Progessive House and most other genres have become. In all honesty, I don’t think the term translates at all well out into the world beyond North America and it’s in danger of being an acronym that’s synonymous with HUGE productions that are actually ALL BALLS AND NO WILLY.

Elite Force Promo Shot 2
If you were to pass on one hard learned tip to budding producers, what would it be?

Be your own harshest critic, and finish your tracks. 95% of what I get sent isn’t finished (whether a demo or a promo) – in fact not even close. Ideas are half-formed, ill-considered, ill-fitting and poorly produced. That means that what you is nothing more than a series of ideas – you don’t have a finished piece until you can can truly stand by it. Only then is it time to let it go and send it out into the world.

You don’t have a finished piece until you can can truly stand by it. Only then is it time to let it go and send it out into the world.

Did you have a hard time learning that back in the day?  I know cutting the umbilical cord is second nature now, but when you first started, how did you know something was done?  Or was it just obvious in a way?

I don’t think it was any harder back then – in some ways it was easier because there was something very finite about committing to something on vinyl. Nowadays, you can be as revisionist as you like. I mean, I quite often come back to tracks that I’ve released, and give them a fresh shake up with a new mixdown etc… after the point of their release.