An Interview with Techno Stalwarts Ultramarine

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After a prolonged hiatus, the stalwarts of pastoral techno Ultramarine are back! Fresh off the release of their latest album at the end of 2013 This Time Last Year, these British musicians are back with a three track remix EP coming out soon in 2014.

They laid down quite the amazing sixth album, and we were lucky enough to pick their brain on their return, and get to know a little bit more about this group that’s been making unique waves and chilling people out with a fresh perspective on techno tunes for going on four decades...

So, we have to ask, what was going on for both of you this time last year?
Good to see the album title doing its work! Nothing particularly interesting as it happens but then I suppose the answer will change on a daily basis!

Does it feel good to be back with a full album?
It feels really good. After the previous album (A User’s Guide, 1998) we stopped doing Ultramarine for about 10 years; we’d been running the band full time for much of the ‘90s and I think we ran out of steam a little bit, and certainly fell out of love with the business aspect of it. During our extended break I started a small label, Real Soon, putting out what I’d loosely describe as abstract House music and we both got deeper and deeper into listening to and enjoying other people’s music. Stepping away from making it for a while really rekindled our love of music and I think we both get more out of it now, and understand its value, more than ever.

Ian and I started working together again around 2009 initially with a view to playing live and also to catch up with some of the music software we’d missed out on. Gradually the new Ultramarine project started to find some focus; we released the Find A Way single at the end of 2011 and went straight into This Time Last Year from there. The album has been a real labor of love and we both feel completely engaged and excited by making music again.

Can you describe your studio setup in Essex?
About two years ago we moved our studio from London into a basement area at Ian’s place which is in a beautiful rural coastal location. It’s isolated and peaceful and has proved a great place to work; we’ve been able to really concentrate there. It’s enabled us to work relatively quickly and to be quite decisive about what we’re doing musically.

The setup itself is fairly basic and is more of a glorified bedroom studio than anything else. It’s in no way a professional setup; it’s not a constructed studio space and has no acoustic treatment. We’ve got quite a small collection of machines & instruments; a few analogue synths and drum machines, a few digital bits, the usual recording software with one or two hardware controllers, bass and guitars and quite a large and growing collection of good quality effects pedals.

ultramarine 1

Where does a song start for you gentlemen? Can you take us through your recording process?
For this album the main musical ideas tended to come from the two of us playing live in the studio together. Typically, we would have a very minimal sketch in Ableton that we’d jam with, maybe playing bass or guitar, synths or manipulating certain elements through chains of effects units. Rather than recording MIDI and controller information, we prefer to record everything as audio and treat the software as a tape recorder. Once we’ve captured the essence of the songs in this way we arrange them in a similarly hands-on way rather than programming within the software; we’ll make the basic arrangement on the mixing desk (muting, fading, dubbing effects etc). After this there will of course be a certain amount of shaping and fine tuning within the software but we try to minimize that. For example, the spatial effects that you hear on this album are almost all generated “outside the box” as part of a performance. This allows plenty of room for random happenings and mistakes, which keeps the whole process more interesting and mysterious/magical for us.

This album has a tremendous amount of live performance, what were your preferred instruments and equipment used on the album?
The main difference in terms of instrumentation on this album (compared to our previous records) is the use of electric guitar which I don’t think we’ve used since our first album (Folk, 1990). The guitar is pretty abstract on the record; it’s used for some chord patterns that are recognizable as guitar but it’s also used for a lot of the textural detail drifting around in the background. Ian plays the guitar and I played small bass parts on some tracks. I’m a pretty limited bass player but I love the instrument and the way such minimal touches can be so suggestive of different musical styles and can so easily add feel and tonal detail to a track.

A couple of other prominent instruments on the album are the Korg Mono/Poly synth which is used for some of the organ-like parts and an Oberheim DX drum machine that underpins many of the tracks with that quite stiff, 1980s digital sound.

Do you consider genre at all when you go about recording? Or do you have a specific idea, sound or theme you like to pursue?
The question of genre is interesting, particularly as we’re making electronic-based music. It’s interesting because it’s such a genre-led area of music (particularly in the UK I think) and, unless you’re in a very fortunate high-profile position (where you’re kind of above genres), the question of where to position your music in the marketplace can’t really be ignored. And, with instrumental electronic music, there’s also the issue of the functionality of the music and formats… “is this a listening record?”… “is it DJ-friendly?”… “does it need a CD release?”… “does it need a vinyl release?” etc. These questions do come into play for us because I think our music floats between several electronic and non-electronic genres and we need to give the records a fighting chance in the real world by at least presenting them in the right way and trying to find an audience. I think we consider these issues more in terms of the release of the records and how they’re presented and promoted than in the actual music-making which we try to keep as free as possible.

For each project, this new album included, we like to establish some kind of theme quite early on. In the case of Every Man and Woman is a Star and United Kingdoms we had very distinct literal themes and stories going on, to the extent that they were sometimes referred to as“concept” albums in reviews. A User’s Guide and This Time Last Year have no concept or narrative as such and, for us at least, are primarily driven by the sound palettes we made for them. Each album is definitely conceived as an album (rather than a collection of recent tracks). For This Time Last Year the idea was to create a sound palette and a recording workflow at the start of the process (sort of doing the groundwork) and then to kind of abandon ourselves to the music and let it come out as naturally and as unforced as possible.

Your sound has been described as pastoral techno, how do you feel about that classification?
I think that was Simon Reynolds’ description in his book Energy Flash. Personally, I quite like it! It was quite tongue-in-cheek I think. Someone once called us Medieval House which is even better. These tags don’t bother me at all; it’s quite difficult music to pin down so fair play to anyone who comes up with a genre for it.

Ultramarine 2

The album is pensive and emotionally powerful, it really feels like you’re translating some significant memories into song, how long has the album been in production?
It’s very nice that you describe it in that way. It was certainly an emotional record for us; I was having a fairly awful time in my personal life around the time we started serious work on it and I think both of us consider it to have more emotional energy than our previous records. The build-up to the album was quite slow; we had a couple of false starts a few years ago as we were trying to find our feet again but I’d say the serious concentrated work was done over the period of about a year.

What are some distinct concepts or images that you might use to succinctly describe the album?
We use imagined settings or landscapes quite often when we’re writing and a couple of tracks on the album, Decoy Point and Within Reach, were inspired by the location of the studio which is next to a large estuary. So I suppose that’s the main image for us but I wouldn’t expect that to really come across to the listener.

What do you hope listeners take away from This Time Last Year?
Without wanting to get too New Age-y about it, I would like people to find some sort of peace and cathartic aspect in it, as it was partly made with that purpose for ourselves I think.

What is your ideal suggestion for where a listener should enjoy your album? A long walk? In a crowded room? In the marshes of Essex?
A bleak coastal setting of the listener’s choice; sitting by an open fire in an old wood-beamed house overlooking the sea, low winter sun filtering through the windows, listening on a pair of ancient dusty speakers.

Are you planning a tour in 2014?
We won’t be doing a full tour this year but we will start playing one-off shows from about July onwards. We hope to confirm a couple of dates soon and would love to hear from anyone interested in booking us!

What are you listening to lately?
Some recent records we’ve been listening to:

Huerco S. Colonial Patterns (Software)
Jessy Lanza Pull My Hair Back (Hyperdub)
Julianna Barwick Nepenthe (Dead Oceans)
William Parker Wood Flute Songs (AUM Fidelity)
Harold Budd Wind In Lonely Fences (All Saints)
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy self-titled LP (Palace)
Glenn Jones My Garden State (Thrill Jockey)
Mount Kimbie Cold Spring Fault Less Youth (Warp)
Various I Am The Center (Light in the Attic)

After six albums, how do you feel your sound has evolved?

I think the blend of electronic and acoustic/played instrumentation has become better integrated as we’ve gone on but I find it difficult to get an overview of how it’s evolved (or regressed!) in other ways.

We hope you don’t have any plans of going away again, no plans for another prolonged
sabbatical right?

No, definitely not. Our intention is for This Time Last Year to be the start of a new phase of work and we would like to be as prolific as possible.

“Decoy Point” Ultramarine, Real Soon

Album Preview, Ultramarine, Real Soon

Here's one song off the remix EP coming out soon!
"Passwords (Hercules & Love Affair vs Ha-ze Factory Remix)" Ultramarine, Real Soon

And don’t hesitate to download a copy of the album from any of the usual cast of musical download providers…

Amazon, iTunes, Beatport

Photo Credits:
Photographer: Emily Bowling
© Emily Bowling
http://www.emilybowling.com/