WORDS: Alex Caslano
“Music is such an infinite world of sound and ultimately I want to create an emotional connection with an audience, no matter what technique or approach is used.” Glaswegian producer, Alex Smoke, is an intriguing man, and his relationship with the music he makes is quite fascinating. A prolific producer whose early releases on Soma established his name as part of Glasgow’s nascent techno scene, Smoke has been able to resist the demands of the dancefloor, operating without boundaries in his own sonic space. His new album, ‘Love Over Will’, which is due for release this week on renowned Belgian label R&S, finds him indulging in something entirely artistic – a world away from pounding kick drums.
Delivered over 13 tracks, ‘Love Over Will’ is deeply hypnotic, Smoke’s vocals floating over haunting soundscapes which enchant and chill. It can be poured over or subconsciously absorbed. Either way, it leaves the listener curious, a feeling enhanced by the album’s provocative cover which was realised by photographer, Finlay MacKay, and references “magical thinking and sexuality”.
Like Smoke’s lyrics and the ethereal production, there is a certain sense of mystery about how we interpret ‘Love Over Will’ – the title being a play on the law of ‘Thelema’, which loosely suggests that each person has a “True Will” which rises above day-to-day desires. “There's no over-arching concept for the album, merely a snapshot of how I was feeling about things at the time it was created” offers Smoke. “The ideas of freedom, control and spiritual liberation are all there in the background.” For those who want to dig, ‘Love Over Will’ has plenty to reveal.
Listen to sample tracks from the album below and read our full interview with Smoke in which we talk in depth about the creative process and some of the theory behind it:
SynthGlasgow: It’s been three years since your last studio album and you’ve only released a handful of EPs since. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration and starting point for ‘Love Over Will’?
Alex Smoke: Yeah, I've been working on lots of other musical endeavours, but I am also always writing tracks for albums and EPs. I don't really sit down to write an album, as I always have a lot of music ready for release - so it's more a case of waiting until a label is ready to release an album. At that point I can then compile tracks and make alterations to fit needs. That process can actually be quite intense as you get into a different headspace when there's a need to get things ready, and that can result in new creative ideas and directions even at the latest stages of writing. I'd like to release much more music of various sorts, but finding outlets is the hard part. I could of course self-release it but I am not a natural for the promotion required and don't have the cash to press it up either, so it makes much more sense to have a label handle that.
SG: Before we even start talking about the music on ‘Love Over Will’, we need to touch on the album cover which is provocative to say the least. What message are you trying to communicate with it and how does it complement the album’s concept?
AS: There's no over-arching concept for the album, merely a snapshot of how I was feeling about things at the time it was created. The ideas of freedom, control and spiritual liberation are all there in the background, and the title references that. The photo is Finlay's response to the title and the general theme, and whilst I can't really speak for him, I can say that it clearly references magical thinking and sexuality, and the idea of balance between the sexes (the hermaphrodite).
SG: ‘Love Over Will’ is far removed from the club records you’re also known for; was it exciting for you to work on something which isn’t necessarily designed to make people move?
AS: My musical pre-occupation for the past few years has definitely been away from the dancefloor, and that's still where I'm happiest just now. Music is such an infinite world of sound and ultimately I want to create an emotional connection with an audience, no matter what technique or approach is used. Dance music has such a strong position in that world because it is inclusive, immediate and serves a direct purpose, and that is a powerful thing and the reason I will probably never leave it behind completely. But for now I am happiest exploring the other ways of affecting consciousness through sound, with a vein of techno thrown in when I feel the need to dance.
SG: Listening to the album we were really struck by how immersive and hypnotic it is, but also how much detail is revealed with each listen; was the production process fluid or did it become quite intricate work?
AS: Well, that's good to hear. It's nice when subsequent listens reveal new facets. It's always a bit of a balancing act for me, getting the feel of a piece down whilst technically pushing myself. I like to work fast and let the idea flow as much as possible, so I'll tend to concentrate on getting the parts written and recorded in one session, maybe two. After that, though, I might do all sorts to the piece, such as passing bits through Kyma or the modular, and sometimes I might drastically change the beats if there are any, as they tend to dictate the style to a large extent. Some things demand lots of work but mainly I like things to be simple even if the process is complicated, if that makes sense. For example, loading loops into Kyma and messing with them is intricate work, but it is also fun and only involves using one program, and once that is done I can get back to arranging.
SG: Obviously your voice is one of most prominent and important features on 'Love Over Will'; does writing and recording vocals come naturally to you and how significant are the lyrics on the album?
AS: Every time I say I won't do something again I always end up doing it again immediately, which is fucking typical. I said I'd not write any more lyrics a while ago, but for this album I wrote a fair number of them. Some are just single takes of a stream of consciousness, such as ‘Dire Need’; others are fully written out, such as ‘Fall Out’, but all of them have a common thread running through them which is a mirror on my thinking at the time, obviously. I am not a great lyricist, and I wish I was a PJ Harvey or a Nick Cave, but I love the feel of a vocal even if the words aren't particularly special. How many pop songs do I love which have the most abysmal lyrics….a lot! If I can get a message across then that's fine, but it's not my reason for doing them - it's really just a personal expression, a brain venting. On top of that, I love the way a vocal makes a song, even if it is incredibly simple and even if it is almost totally submerged in effects. They are also great fun to play with creatively.
SG: We understand that ‘Love Over Will’ relates to Aleister Crowley's law of Thelema and you’ve been quoted saying that the album is "a statement on the times we are living in”. What elements of modern thinking and society does the album comment on?
AS: Yeah, I don't want the Thelema thing to be taken too directly, and I inverted the title to reflect that. Crowley was way ahead of his time in his thinking and his desire for people to be in charge of their own destinies, but he was also inescapably a product of his times and his own unique background, and some of what he said doesn't necessarily chime with me, hence the inversion in the title. His outlook was a selfish one, and in many ways we are living in an age which he envisioned: an age devoted to following one's own ambitions and satisfying one's own desires, but also an age largely lacking in spiritual depth. I am here referring to the 'Western' Capitalist world incidentally. People's needs and desires have been largely warped by Capitalism, asking them to scratch any itch they might have (emotionally, spiritually or physically) using a £20 note. That works for a time and provides short term relief, but we as a society are not happy, we are not equitable, the world is dying and we are not truly free. But I do think that these things have a habit of working themselves out, albeit in the messiest possible way, and involving much more suffering than is actually required. Such is humanity, at least until a greater number of us have become more enlightened.
SG: You’ve worked quite closely with visual artist Florence To who developed the A/V show for your live performances. At what point did she join you on the project and how did she translate the music to visuals?
AS: I've worked with Flo a lot recently on various installation and A/V projects, so we know one another's way of working. Flo is extremely meticulous, unlike me, so we are a good counterbalance for one another. She likes to work to finished music and preferably programmed sets, but for this unfortunately she's had to give way, as I like the freedom to make the set up as I go. So she has created a huge amount of visual material in Cinema 4D which is used alongside generative software and literally played live with the music. Flo was on board for the A/V show at the very beginning of the process as I wanted to give her plenty of time to create the necessary material. I think she wiped out her new MacPro in the process. Well worth it.
SG: Finally, it’s been well over ten years since you had your first release as Alex Smoke. Where would you rank ‘Love Over Will’ in terms of importance on your musical timeline and how do you feel now that the world is about to hear it?
AS: Ah, it's always a very mixed sensation when an album comes out. I've learnt to detach myself from expectation a bit, and from feedback both good and bad, but there are always some butterflies in the stomach when it's loose. At the end of the day, it is a part of me. The other part of me couldn't care less, as I am really into what I am doing at the moment and the album is probably at least a year old by the time it's released. This album in particular, I think, marks something of a transition point in my music making - part looking back at making electronic music within a framework of dance culture, and part looking forward at the possibilities inherent in sound and the application of new compositional techniques. To me, it is still a flawed album, like all my albums before it, but there are definitely career high points in there for me personally. We shall see what the public make of it, and hopefully it will mean something to some and not cause too much murderous hatred in others.
Alex Smoke ‘Love Over Will’ is available on digital, CD and vinyl on Fri 22nd January via R&S. The album launch party is on Jan 28th at The Pickle Factory, London, with full A/V from Florence To and support from The Sprawl and White Peak.