Plaid Returns: Breakdancing In Your Head, Calling The Heart

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Photo by Eva Vermandel

“Hello? Can you hear me?”

You can see Plaid on the other side, across thousands of miles from Los Angeles to London. Ed Handley is at a laptop. Andy Turner is peering into your screen. Warp Record’s press hand Helen is waving with a smile. But what you actually hear is a smear of digital noise modulating in musical tones like the glossolalia of some drunken robot.

You think for a moment that Plaid is playing their music live for you. That it’s their sonic greeting card a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But then Helen gives the thumbs down and we hang up.

We knew some people would object to it or find it creepy listening. But we just thought it sounds good. It’s interesting. We’ve tried to learn about the human voice and what makes a voice a voice.

Plop. Plop. Ed is calling back and this time you hear his friendly voice. “Sorry,” he says with a laugh. “We’ve been having issues with Skype all day.”

This is the world of Plaid. This is also the world we live in. It’s a place of accelerating technology, where people can peer around the planet and meet new faces online. It’s where robots can make sumptuous ramen in Tokyo. Or where computer calculations simulate the Big Bang down to an infinitesimal split second.

It’s also 2011, on the eve of Plaid’s sixth full album Scintilli, when Skype can be as cranky and unpredictable as ever. That’s the unbroken nature of our electronic life: elusive perfection.

For the last eight years, Ed and Andy have been experimenting in new pastures, pushing themselves as artists, working on film scores and touring with a Javanese orchestra. One of British techno’s leading lights, they’ve reigned for years as the purveyors of quirk. Yet it’s been a long time since we’ve heard Plaid in their purest form.

Scintilli can be translated from Latin as “I am many sparks.” But the album itself goes well beyond the poetic into the profoundly mysterious. The music itself is much more than what meets the ear. It’s most stunning secret is that all of its beautiful, harmonic vocals are entirely synthetic, woven out of sine waves and Plaid’s own heartbreaking sense of song. No human vocal chords were abused in its making.

“It’s slightly eerie,” Ed admits with a chuckle. “It’s this computer expressing an emotion of some sort.”

But it’s not really so eerie as it is magical. Closer “At Last” is a gorgeous tempest of longing, its singing synths pulling at the heartstrings and sweeping up the spirits. It’s one of Plaid’s best efforts in their over 20-year career. The angelic “Founded” quivers with a feminine grace that is truly haunting. You wouldn’t believe either were purely electronic unless someone told you.

“We knew some people would object to it or find it creepy listening,” Ed says. “But we just thought it sounds good. It’s interesting. We’ve tried to learn about the human voice and what makes a voice a voice.”

The heavy vocal synthesis was a first for Plaid and given its success, they’ve upped the ante in humanizing machines. We knew computers could talk, but serenade? By using filter techniques and special software, Ed and Andy show they can with style.

But ghosting the human voice is just one of many cool tricks on Scintilli. Plaid also used physics algorithms in real-time to generate various sounds in a shared virtual space. It’s a computer-intensive process that removed all the cages in their instrumental zoo.

“It works very well for bell-like sounds or percussive struck sounds,” Ed explains. “It sounds acoustic-y. Effectively you have all these things resonating together inside the computer and affecting each other. So that was another road we went down. Just things to keep us interested, to keep the sparks going.”

Working with these players generally has been very eye opening. The beauty of Javanese music is it’s very repetitive, very trance-y. It relates to dance music quite well. It has the same aim.

Which brings us back to the name of their new album. “For me, it relates slightly to the sensation of listening to music,” Ed says. “Sometimes you can almost sense, when something’s good, you get a spark or you get some sparks happening. Conceptually that’s what it’s about: the spark of life, the spark of creativity.”

Plaid has gone far afield to find some of those sparks. To some fans, they dropped off the face of the earth following their 2003 album Spokes. But the pair were actually hard at work on other creative endeavors. They collaborated with longtime friend and video artist Bob Jaroc on the audio-visual DVD Greedy Baby. They hooked up with LA transplant and Tokyo filmmaker Michael Arias, scoring his movie Heaven’s Door and the anime feature Tekkon Kinkreet. The latter made especially good use of Plaid’s sensitive aesthetic to help tell a story about orphans battling the yakuza.

Ed and Andy also collaborated with inventor Felix Thorn, who designs robotic instruments that play themselves. “It’s basically deconstructed pianos with phono lines attached, which make a crazy kind of dance music,” Ed explains. “We played a little festival up in the countryside and came across the machines in a room and were sort of wowed by them. So we approached Felix and said we’d like to do something with you and he was up for it.”

But Plaid’s recent experiments with Felix’s Machines doesn’t mean they’re strict futurists. The past speaks to them just as loudly. The Javanese ensemble of xylophones, drums and gongs known as gamelan also grabbed their attention. Gamelan music famously pricked the imagination of French composer Claude Debussy in 1889 at the Paris World Expo, inspiring him to craft ornamental impressionism like Clair de Lune. It was at a music festival in London’s South Bank that turned Plaid onto the same traditional sounds.

The process of hearing music is like a dance. Internally, you’re dancing. Most music to me, anyhow, feels that way, it’s about a sort of movement.

“That’s been really stimulating because it’s a completely different tuning system,” Ed says. “Working with these players generally has been very eye-opening. The beauty of Javanese music is it’s very repetitive, very trance-y. It relates to dance music quite well. It has the same aim.”

The Scintilli track “Craft Nine” bears the vibes of gamelan’s bright clangs and twinkling percussion, while “Somnl” ricochets to banging bells, sprinkling its fairy dust over snarling dubstep bass. As Ed points out, Plaid has always gravitated toward steel drums and chimes. But there’s a finer balance on the new album that gives their music a more open, unfussed elan.

“It was the idea of a looseness and a sort of lack of complexity which we got really from working with the gamelan,” Ed explains. “And the idea of restraint, of not layering on too many influences, because in some of our previous material, we had gone a bit overboard in layering and layering synths. And this one we tried to hold it back.”

That increased dynamism through minimalism feels like a real turn in Plaid’s musical DNA. Changes in their personal lives also helped usher in the calm. Andy is now a father and Ed moved back to rural Suffolk, where the two friends met as teenagers.

“It definitely has an effect on music making,” Ed reasons. “If anything it has made me want even less, even less...to sort of go to a minimal sound in a way because there is so much space and peace there. It takes less to do more, if you know what I mean.”

Some of the stuff they can do is just phenomenal, the stuff we used to dream about really, these weird combinations of flares crossed with windmills with halos with fusion moves.

You can hear this unhurried ease in album opener “Missing,” which gently waltzes to harp synths and child-like chants. Even on the rambunctious “Unbank,” the confident, almost lazy rumble of heavy metal riffs a la Van Halen or Muse ooze under a cloud of dusky gasps. “Tender Hooks” follows in a dreamy echo, falling like timed water drops in a crystal cave.

This kind of bucolic ornamentalism can be found throughout Plaid’s work, as far back as their earliest days in The Black Dog. Classics like “The Crete That Crete Made,” “Rainbow Bridge,” “Olivine” and “Further Harm” belong as much to outdoor sunsets as they do cyber cityscapes. “Buddy” from 1999’s Rest Proof Clockwork is perhaps their most eccentric take on this theme. Its easy-as-she-goes bobble evokes a canoe trip down an underground river.

But that’s only one side of Plaid, which fans and newcomers will happily embrace on Scintilli. Dance rhythms play an equal role at their return party. “Talk to Us” jams to wheezing synths and lashing, stabbing bass. “Thank” whirls and whips on a broken sidewalk of slamming beats. It’s the same freak-out genius Plaid originally burnished their fame on, from the swimming attacks of 1995’s “Angry Dolphin” to the whooshing marionette grooves of “Abla Eedio” on 1997’s Not For Threes.

“I think the idea of a dance is still really important to us and it’s sort of where we’re going,” Ed says with pride. “I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of this sense of rhythm and a rhythm you can dance to. The process of hearing music is like a dance. Internally, you’re dancing. Most music to me, anyhow, feels that way, it’s about a sort of movement.”

Where does that commitment to motion come from? When Ed and Andy first met in the ‘80s, they bonded over a mutual love of hip-hop, techno and breakdancing. To this day, while mostly retired from dangerous moves, they continue to be inspired by the angular, circular grace of that old street art.

“We still try to keep up with breaking,” Ed says, his voice lifting. “I watch the various competitions. For me it’s lovely seeing the balance between the gymnastic, athletic style and the sort of footwork styles. It’s incredible how sophisticated it is now. It’s sort of way beyond Olympic gymnastics. Some of the stuff they can do is just phenomenal, the stuff we used to dream about really, these weird combinations of flares crossed with windmills with halos with fusion moves.”

Those moves continue to inspire Plaid’s music, which sounds exactly like Ed’s description. Perhaps the most telling image of Ed and Andy accompanied the release of Not For Threes. It showed how playful the pair really are: a photoshopped image of them breakdancing against the force of gravity, vertical in mid-motion, on the shelves of a staid mid-20th century library.

“When we were doing it, it was, ‘Can you do a windmill?’” Ed recalls of their more youthful days. “And then, ‘Can you do a one-handed windmill?’ But now it’s not really about that. It’s about how you go from one move to another and just amazing balance as well. A lot of the freezes people do is just mind-blowing. I still love it. It’s one of my favorite things really. I don’t really do it anymore, unless it’s with Andy. We both really love it.”

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Andy has been mostly absent from our Skype meld. He’s been passing through here and there. The video screen is dead but you can hear him closing doors, moving this way and that. As Ed explains, Andy’s a busy dad now, and one imagines he savors any downtime he can get. But you can also picture him spinning behind Ed as he talks.

When asked what their favorite dance styles were, Ed offers a perfect portrait of their symbiotic artistry. “Andy was a good windmiller. I was really more of a popper more than anything. I enjoyed locking, which is really tensing up all your muscles, like you’re having a fit,” he laughs. “That was always my thing.”

Like their dancing, Plaid’s music is a unique combination of the tense and the whimsical, the earthbound and the airborne. But going deeper, there’s an upbeat melancholy that holds Plaid’s center of gravity. It’s at once up and down but always emanating from an optimistic core.

In 1992, Ed wrote one of the most dearly loved techno tracks of all time, contributing “Nort Route” to Carl Craig’s Intergalactic Beats compilation. It’s a wind-swept surf through outer space, its wooden drums clocking the seconds of a cosmic breakthrough. In a blast from the past, another storied act, Global Communication, recently used it as a prized highlight on their reunion mix album Back in the Box.

All these years later, the mysterious waves of Plaid are still bringing people together, from old peers to new pals. Ed says he generally doesn’t mind looking back. He realizes most of the younger generation have never heard these gems from the ‘90s rave heyday. He also recognizes Plaid’s career was just one of many sparks from the creative supernova of techno’s first golden age.

“You were hearing so many things you’d never really heard before,” Ed says fondly of that formative time. “A lot of the characters involved were really decent and were just about making music. There was no idea really of making lots of money from it or anything. These were just heartfelt tracks that were coming out. You can still hear the intention behind them. You can hear the meaning.”

This is what should survive when it comes to electronica’s hectic evolution. Listening to Scintilli, a genuine humanity always shines through. Plaid may be teaching robots how to sing and how to dream. On “Upgrade,” the bass skids like that drunken Skype burble, speaking to a future of unlimited possibility.

But listening carefully from the other side, it’s no doubt music made for and by humans. The heart-aching beauty of something like “At Last” is calling out. Pick up the line and feel the sparks fly. And maybe someday a tearful robot will hear you.

“Thank you. We needed that. Welcome back.”

You can pick up Plaid's album in LP-T format—aka buy the shirt and get the album with it. The shirt is in gunmetal grey and is printed with elements of the album cover. Each LP-T has a download code to redeem the original album in lossless format tagged into the collar. Check it out via Bleep.  You can request an advance download code by e-mailing support@bleep.com. Just so you know, requesting an advance code means that your t-shirt will not have a download code tagged into the collar.