Techno legends Slam chat to 909originals

Slam’s Stuart McMillan and Orde Meikle have been an influential force in techno for three decades now, as the co-founders of Soma Quality Recordings, residents at the long-running Pressure night at The Arches (not to mention the infamous Slam Tent at T in the Park), hosts of the Slam Radio podcast, and producers extraordinaire.

In recent years, McMillan and Meikle have overseen the growth of the Riverside Festival in their native Glasgow (which made its long-awaited return in September), while also continuing to set the techno template with recent releases such as the Scourge, Selective Assembly, Strange Dayz, Desolate Spaces and Final Conflict EPs, among others.

Their latest project is Louder Than Chaos, a series of five collaborative EPs borne out of lockdown, with one set to be released each month. Following on from Volume 1, which featured tie-ups with 999999999, Hector Oaks and Keith Tucker (AKA Optic Nerve), Volume 2 has just landed, with the lads teaming up with Perc for a two-track monster. 

Further collaborations between Slam and Amelie Lens, Slam and Rebekah and Slam and AnD are set to follow, with each EP featuring specially-commissioned artwork from artist PPP Panic, which consolidates into one constructive piece over the five releases.

Louder Than Chaos Volume 2 is now available via the Soma Shop and Beatport, with a wider launch on other platforms scheduled for 28 October. You can download/stream it here.

909originals caught up with them.

Hi guys, thanks for talking to us. First off, you’ve been playing a few gigs recently, and things seem to be starting to get back to normal after the pandemic. How’s that going for you?

Stuart: Yeah, there’s been a year of not having any events, and then all of a sudden having them again. You know, we’ve been organising these things for so long, and then all of a sudden they’re happening and it sort of feels kind of like a dream.

Over the last four or five weeks, it’s been crazy. It’s been good to be back in amongst that environment and get busy again with that sort of stuff.

Something like Riverside festival, obviously that takes a lot of planning. Whatever about playing clubs, the big events and Slam tents have been on ice for about a year and a half. And there have been lots of changes taking place. I think that the biggest challenge has been trying to secure a lineup that people have bought a ticket for initially, and trying to keep that momentum going, and all those plates spinning. It’s been an interesting time. 

Orde: Yeah, the constant rescheduling – that’s been quite hard. Keeping the the original lineup pretty much intact for something like 18 months, it’s a real feat. 

On that, with regard to the type of bookings you are making – do you think the pandemic has led to more local DJs being booked; that there’s more of an appreciation for homegrown talent?

Stuart: I think that’s a really good observation. I think that’s where we were sort of going with the Slam tent when we announced we were bringing that back, we thought it’s probably gonna be a bit of a logistical nightmare to get everybody to travel. But wait, we’ve actually got a lot of great DJ’s locally, you know? So to come out with a fully Scottish line up is is something that’s quite novel. 

I guess it’s something that not a lot of other large events would look at. I don’t know if people are getting kind of fed up with DJ’s and big fees and crazy riders – the stuff you used to have before. But that’s the interesting thing about techno; there’s always a lot of new, emerging talent. That’s probably the reason why we started Slam Radio, because there wasn’t really a podcast at that point focusing on that. 

We wanted to try and focus on bringing emerging talent through. It’s something we’ve always kept an eye on. Whether the the marketplace is there for that, I think is the big question.

Orde: I think with the Riverside lineup this year we definitely had quite a heavy slant on local artists. We had a satellite stage that was dedicated to them. This year, I think we definitely had a good representation of local talent.

You mentioned Slam Radio there. As well as that, during the pandemic you put on a few livestreams – I remember a Soma Records showcase. Are you planning more livestreams, even as things get back to normal?

Stuart: I think, logistically, it’s not as easy to pull together a weekly stream than it is to do the radio show. Something that was really interesting about that whole time was that some DJs were almost panicking; you could see people saying ‘my profile, my profile what am I gonna do?’ 

And then it seemed like they went down to B&Q and bought a ridiculous amount of plants to put in the background for their livestreams.

Let’s talk about the Louder Than Chaos project – five different releases with various collaborators. How did that idea come about?

Stuart: Well, we hadn’t really done that many collaborations at that point. With the pandemic, we were thrown into a situation where we weren’t connecting with anybody. 

When those connections were lost, we were like ‘ok, we need to find a way to connect and make good music’. You know, to use the time in a positive way, with people that we wanted to make music with.

Ok, so while the releases are coming out now, this was very much a lockdown project?

Stuart: Yes it is. I mean, when did we stop playing? March. Then we started reaching out. 

Orde: Early summer, wasn’t it?

Stuart: The last couple of weeks in April, I think. It wasn’t long, because of the nature of the way we are sometimes. Plus, these things take time, especially collaborations. It’s not a quick process, so we kind of needed this time to pull things together. 

Orde: There was a lot of back and forth.

Tell me how it worked – was it the case that you had a fragment of a track, and, say, Hector Oaks had a fragment of a track, and you put these ideas together? Or was it all original compositions?

Stuart: It pretty much was all original compositions – we would send across our idea to Hector or 999999999 or whatever, and they would send their idea back, which would be completely different! I don’t think there was any kind of definitive method behind it. I don’t think there can be when you’re working with lots of different artists, because each artist has a completely unique way of working.

We were just bouncing ideas off each other, you know. Like with Hector’s track, when he sent that to me he said ‘oh, by the way I’ve sampled Lifetimes’. And I was like, ‘really? I don’t hear it’. There’s a little bit of vocal in there that samples Lifetimes, maybe a loop of it. 

It kind of went like that – back and forward. It was quite a natural process, as that’s what we do with our productions anyway. It didn’t seem strange for us. We’re not always in the studio together – sometimes we’ll get together and do live shows, but we are always bouncing ideas back and forth. We’re used to doing that. 

Yes, but as you said, you hadn’t done many collaborations previously. You were sort of stepping into uncharted territory.

Stuart: Yeah, totally. I love that whole idea of always trying, and it’s going to sound a bit cheesy, but always trying to find the good in the negativity. There’s always something that you can turn around, there’s always something you can spin. 

We’ve spoken to lots of  other artists about what they were doing during the pandemic, and a lot of them said that because they weren’t always on the road, it gave them the chance to work on a project that they had been putting off for five or ten years, or whatever. Was that the same with you?

Stuart: Yeah. The idea came to us when we were in lockdown, and it wasn’t something we had thought about. I mean, if you’re touring most weekends, you really don’t have the time to to reflect. You’re always on a kind of treadmill. I’ve actually only realised this since we started back up DJing again how all-consuming that is. It isn’t just the two hours or whatever that you stand there; there’s a lot of research and crate digging. 

Orde: It takes up a lot of time, yeah. But we also had the the record label to run, as well as Slam Radio and various other things didn’t really stop during the the pandemic. But it was a strange feeling. I think, sometimes, you get on that treadmill and and it just becomes the norm and you don’t think about it. You just get on with it. For it all to kind of stop was a bit strange to be honest.

It will take a good couple of months until I feel I’m kind of totally back in the groove again, to be honest.

Are you seeing that in the crowd as well? That there is a bit of apprehension there?

Stuart: Well, Glasgow gigs are always insane, you know? So, Riverside this year was one of the best that I’ve seen. Although the clubs had opened by that stage, I think people were saving themselves for that event. 

For many, it was the first thing they went to, and the vibe was really energetic, and crazy. People are just excited to be back out again.

Orde: I think the the Riverside was the first major festival in Scotland, or at least Western Scotland, so there was a kind of extra energy there.

You mentioned about running the label during the pandemic. Was that difficult?

Stuart: Well, when Orde says run the label, he means doing an A&R meeting on a Thursday.

Orde: Ha! Well, we’ve got two labels now – we’ve got Soma and we’ve got Avoidant, an electro label, so between the two of them there’s a reasonable kind of workload. It’s not just meetings on a Thursday.

I don’t think we thought about how the lockdown and pandemic would affect a dance label, but I think we were pleasantly surprised to see that you know people were still buying music, even though it couldn’t be played out. There was only a small drop off in sales. It was nowhere near what I thought it might have been.

Soma’s quite diverse. We’ve got a broad roster of artists so that was really pleasing to see – people were still interacting with dance labels and dance music, even though they weren’t able to go to a club to listen to it, in that kind of setting.

With a lot of producers we’ve spoken to, they said that they found it difficult to motivate themselves to make music during the pandemic, with all the clubs being closed. They lost their mojo, you could say. Did you experience that at all?

Stuart: I totally get that. For us it was more about doing little experiments that turned into bigger ideas. I don’t know what happened, but we probably released our most banging stuff.

I just wasn’t just in the mood for making ambient music. You know, I love ambient music and all, but we just weren’t in the mood. I guess we felt that this is going to end at some point, and we’ll have a lot of weapons to play with, you know?

Orde: I did think there would be some self-indulgent, introverted kind of ambient music coming out on the back of this. But I’m not sure that actually materialised, to be honest.

I can think of a few projects, but not by any of the artists on your label. By the way, Soma is 30 years old this year, isn’t it? For the 20th and 25th anniversaries you put out some big releases. Are there plans for anything similar this year – I mean, it’s a hell of a milestone.

Stuart: Soma started in 1991. So yes, this year it’s 30 years old – well spotted. It’s great that we’re still doing it after all this time, I guess, and are still as excited about the music. I think that’s key – to keep that excitement and to have a genuine passion for the music. A lot of people get fed up with it, but we haven’t.

Yeah, most labels would fizzle out after a few years, or the people behind them would lose interest. Obviously your love of the music holds it all together, as well as your continued willingness to keep looking for something new?

Stuart: Yeah, I think that’s accurate. It sort of goes back to when I first heard house music, maybe acid house. I remember hearing it in London and thinking ‘what is this weird music? I really want to know more about it!’

For me, I’ve always been like that. I get quite bored easily, and I want to discover new artists and new vibes and new sounds. So I think that hopefully reflects on the label and what we bring out. 

Orde: Both of us share that kind of vision, of wanting to be excited about something new. It’s same with the DJing and things like that. The excitement of finding a new artist, or finding a new track. It’s just the way it’s always been, and we’re surrounded by people who feel the same as we do.

You also helped launch the career of Daft Punk along the way of course; that in itself is a huge legacy story that you have.

Stuart: It was one of these kind of Forrest Gump moments, where these things that just happened. If anybody was to say to you, ‘could you predict that these guys were gonna be as big as they were’, you would have to say ‘no, you wouldn’t have’. 

I mean, the one thing you did realise about Daft Punk’s early material was that it was pretty unique. It had its own vibe, it was quite exciting music. The first EP, The New Wave – it was very exciting and raw. It doesn’t sound anything like their later material, it had this great energy about it. 

I remember someone once describing Daft Punk’s first album as the sound of two lads having a laugh with the equipment at their disposal, and churning out this raw stuff. 

Stuart: Yeah, it’s kind of exactly that, really. I remember one time going into Thomas’ bedroom – his house was up in Sacré-Cœur. He lived in a really nice house, his dad was a disco producer that was involved in the music industry. He was quite instrumental in shaping and guiding their career as the success came. 

I said to Thomas, ‘where’s the studio?’. And he said ‘that’s it on the floor’ – there were a couple of drum machines and things like that. And then I was like, ‘where are the speakers?’, and he pointed to this little ghettoblaster. 

That was the thinking – if it sounds good on this, it sounds good on anything.

In terms of your own productions, obviously they also date back to the start of the label. Is there anything that links the likes of Positive Education with Lifetimes with the tracks you are making now? A constant thread? Or an approach that you take to making tracks that hasn’t changed over the years?

Stuart: There have been a few U-turns. With Lifetimes, using vocals was something that we wouldn’t have done before.

Orde: I don’t think they’re U-turns – they are more like zig zags. We did Lifetimes because we were kind of bored just making techno and we wanted to make something with vocals. 

Stuart:We had always loved house music, so we wanted to work with someone from Chicago, which ended up being Tyrone [Palmer] . I don’t know if the music we are making now is more, you know, DJ-oriented. We’ve always played sort of pretty dancefloor-sounding techno.

The music we’re making right now is the kind of music we want to to play in a club, I guess. Whereas with Lifetimes, we’ve never really played it in a club.

So it was sort of like a ‘lockdown project’, 20 years ahead of its time?

Orde: An accurate prediction – that’s some crystal ball shit right there.

Obviously, with techno, it’s such a broad genre. With your productions, you have sort of drifted from making hard techno tracks to melodic techno tracks, and some have really stood the test of time. Positive Education for example.

Stuart: If you put records out in the 90s; people will remember those records. I think there’s a lot of music that comes out now that is quite disposable and I’m not sure people will remember it in 10 years time, in the same way. 

I don’t know whether that’s because the music that was released back then was a physical product that you could hold in your hand. That must have something to do with it. Or, maybe there was just less music came out in the 90s, so things did stand out a little bit more. 

Orde: And they hung around for a lot longer. One thing you notice is that the turnover of tracks is far faster than it was in the 90s, you know. I think there might be multiple reasons for that. The cost of buying music back then gave it more of a longevity. The turnover of tracks now is becoming kind of eye-watering.

At the same time, though, back then you had so many different genres developing all the time. Maybe that’s not happening as much now, although it’s also true to say that it’s difficult to determine what tracks these days are going to be remembered, as we don’t have the benefit of hindsight?

Stuart: Yeah, I completely get that. I guess if you listen back to what was happening in, you know, 2010 or whatever, you would maybe say a couple of Matthew Jonson records or something like that. 

Yes, if someone sticks on Audion – Mouth to Mouth or something, you are transported right back to the mid- to late 2000s. A particular time and place. 

Orde: Sometimes these things have to come back, maybe a couple of times, for them to establish themselves as classics, if you can call them that. Maybe they didn’t do it right at the time, you know when it was actually released. Especially within techno, which has split into so many genres. It’s a broad church. 

There was an interesting interview you did recently with Paula Temple, for Mixmag. You were talking about DJs and social media, and how the pandemic forced them to try to find new ways to interact with their followers. For a duo like yourselves, you’ve always put the music first and foremost. But is it more difficult for up and coming artists to make that separation?

Orde: I was talking to a guy recently, Simon Stokes, who runs a training academy for Abelton, and he was saying that after their first basic tutorial on how to use Ableton, some of these kids turn to him and ask, ‘should I trademark my name? Should I get a graphic done of my name?’

Hang on a minute – you’ve not produced anything yet! You’ve only just started. 

Stuart: I think inherently with Instagram, it becomes less about the music and more about how that music is presented, because it’s a visual platform. That’s something that artists are kind of expected to do now. And we’re, rightly or wrongly, expected to do some of that too. Some people are good at it, and some people are not.

And, you know, it’s never been easy to post music on Instagram. You get far less less interaction than you would if you posted a video of you stroking a cat or baking a cake, or doing some crazy dance. I suppose some people would gravitate towards the music more than others.

Of course, there’s still great music being made. But it’s just part of what it is now. Back then, you would go to a record shop and pick up a vinyl; that was then, and this is now. It’s just something different.

Orde: Yeah, there was also an element of mystery back then with some of the artists we used to book. It was a matter of finding a fax number on a record and asking them to come and play. You didn’t know anything about them a lot of the time. 

Stuart: Social media gives everybody a platform to show off what they do, whether they’re a big DJ or a small DJ. It’s where people get the most exposure – and you don’t necessarily get that with magazines any more. Things are changing all the time, and there’s plenty of shameless self promotion. And there are some people that are more shameless than others. 

The current situation with social media has been a great leveller in a way – with some of the ‘superstar DJs’ from 20 years ago, they’re having to dive back into their back catalogue to try to maintain their legacy. But most younger people don’t care about legacy, they just want to hear what’s current. 

Stuart: No, they don’t give a f*** about legacy. It’s about what you present now and the way you present it. It’s not necessarily an age thing, I don’t think age should matter.

Look at Carl Cox, he’s still a massive DJ. He still resonates with lots of younger people and he’s still doing relevant stuff. Relevance is key, I think, and also not bring afraid to try to be at the forefront of music, rather than trying to copy someone else’s music. 

Has the pandemic led to a bit of a reset in the techno scene? Prior to the pandemic, you could argue that things were starting to get a bit like EDM, with these massive festival stages with fountains and seahorses and all sorts of nonsense?

Stuart: I wish I was getting paid the fees that the EDM guys get! I think there has been a reset, but maybe not that much.

Orde: In what sense?

Stuart: There’s a lot of newer talent coming through.

Orde: I don’t think that’s a reset though.

It’s strange actually – after 18 months of the pandemic, the people who were part of that big festival circuit are pretty much the same. It hasn’t really changed that much, although some people have joined them. I’ve actually been quite surprised by that – everything stood still for 18 months and has just started up again, with the same names.

Stuart: Of course you need people that you recognise on a bill, but you can be a little bit creative as well. With a lot of these festivals, it’s like they’re booking by numbers and it becomes a little bit soulless. 

We’re also seeing the return of ‘one-hour’ sets at festivals – that was something I hoped would change after the pandemic. 

Orde: Zak from DVS1 said the same thing. That whole situation of only playing for an hour actually affects the music that’s played. There’s no real journey. People don’t really take that many chances in in the music that they’re playing, they just want to bang it the whole way through, you know?

That has an effect on young DJ’s coming through – it’s probably what a lot of them are brought up on. In the past, people would come through as a warm-up for a more established DJ and maybe learn their craft over a number of years. A lot of young people come along now and want to be a headline DJ straight away, they want that one hour slot at a festival. 

Stuart: That can happen quite quickly for some people, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. 

Orde: Again, it’s just different.

If you look at any festival lineup, it seems everybody has their own logo these days. I’m not sure if you have a logo, but it’s turned into a bit of a cliché when you look at some of these festivals.

Stuart: We’ve had a logo for 20 years actually, ha ha. But you’re right, it gets kind of confusing. I think it ruins the artwork as well, you know, because for a festival promoter they are like ‘how am I going to get all this in?’

Orde: Also there are so many egos and managers and agents involved. Festival lineups have to be alphabetical, otherwise everyone would just squabble all the time about where they are on the lineup.

Something I wanted to ask you guys – obviously you’ve played at 120 BPM, you’ve played at 150-plus BPM. What is your favourite BPM, if you understand the question?

Stuart: I kind of like what we are playing at the moment. It can go from 139 BPM to 149 BPM. I like the energy of that. 

Orde: I listened to a mix that we did in Chicago back in the 90s. It was really fast, but that’s only because of where we were then – we were in our mid twenties. I tend to not have any hang up on what the BPM is. It just sounds right for what you’re playing at that time, and where your head is, you know?

Yeah, so it’s all contextual?

Orde: You know, the early house stuff was all in the 120s, around 122 BPM, and that didn’t sound super slow at the time. 

Stuart: I noticed a couple of years ago that things were just getting a bit raw and a bit faster, which I kind of liked. People were making a statement with the speed of the music. Now, though, you have some people playing at 160 BPM, which I’m not a fan of. 

In terms of where you are playing at the moment; is it mainly in the UK or have you done any gigs overseas?

Stuart: Right now we’re playing in the UK, and we’re looking at a couple of other things abroad just now, as soon as it becomes easier to travel. At the moment the whole situation with visas and work permits and stuff is a bit of a minefield to be honest.

Any plans to come over to Dublin again anytime soon?

Stuart: I love Dublin.

Orde: It’s like a second home.

You’re welcome anytime, lads.

Stuart: I remember the RedBox, that was an amazing one for me. We had lots of great experiences. Also we came over for District 8 recently, with Rebekah. 

That’s the thing – a lot of clubs are closing down here at the moment. District 8 is gone, and the RedBox is long gone. We’re going through this phase at the moment of things closing down. 

Stuart: It was such a good venue, the RedBox. 

Orde: Also the Temple of Sound, when we used to play with Johnny Moy. That was unbelievable.

Stuart: And then there was The Kitchen.

Orde: With all these clubs that are closing – is there any reason for it other than property development?

Yeah, it’s it’s mainly to do with property, and hotels. Another place you would have played was Hangar. That’s been turned into a hotel. But you know, these things come in cycles.

Stuart: Yeah, things come and go. Nothing’s built to last forever, but when one door closes, another one opens. That’s what keeps things exciting.

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