British producer and DJ Daniel Avery is set to release his sophomore album Song for Alpha, the long-awaited follow-up to his breakthrough 2013 debut Drone Logic, this Friday, April 6. It marks an exciting new chapter for him: It’s his first release that Mute Records, the legendary label behind electronic music innovators including Apparat, Ben Frost, and Moby, will handle stateside. Song for Alpha is a tighter, more muscular techno record than Drone Logic; if that album made him an international sensation sought for performances and club nights all over the world, surely this one will elevate him to the same level of reverence as Mute’s decades-long line of visionaries. We caught up with him ahead of the record’s release to learn about its role in Avery’s own self-care, its goal of uniting people, its literary influences, why he couldn't repeat himself and more.
You can pre-order Song for Alpha here.
Max Freedman: Drone Logic really elevated your status. How does Song for Alpha reflect what you’ve learned from taking your show all over the world?
Daniel Avery: The last five years [since Drone Logic] have been pretty different. This album was necessary to make in my life, because as much as I love touring and the gigs and the nightclubs, it’s only one part of who I am, and it’s an intense lifestyle. I feel as if this record was needed in my life to act as some sort of counterbalance to that.
I have a studio in the docklands of London...it’s in an old converted shipping container right next to the River Thames. It’s a very serene, peaceful place, which is rare to find in London. It’s some kind of sanctuary to me, a complete opposite to what happens on the weekend. I think this record, from making it down there, was a space where I could take a breath and stop and explore things away from the nightclub. Even though there’s obviously nightclub influences, that’s only one part of it. It’s a reflection of where my life has taken me these last five years.
You found it therapeutic to be relocating yourself, getting away from the madness of a gigantic city, but it’s also a reflection of everything you’ve been through.
I think so. It feels like a more personal record. I think it’s more introspective. As fond as I am of Drone Logic, I can hear a younger version of myself [in it]. This one has more patience, and…[is perhaps] slightly more meditative than the last time around.
When I listen to Song for Alpha, even though it’s instrumental music, I hear certain things that give me images that are probably very specific to your experience. I’m curious how moments on the album represent your real, lived experiences.
Those are interesting takes. I don’t know if I work through specific experiences. I’m more interested in general feelings that I get from combined experiences. Like you said, that could be the constant movement of traveling, the rush of playing, the spaces between during which you can actually feel very alone. I don’t know about specific experiences, but I appreciate your takes on those tracks—it’s been interesting to hear other people’s takes on them, because for me, even though it’s an electronic record, the main goal for me was to make machine music with a human heart.
You’ve talked about Song for Alpha providing an outlet for the stress of things like the world’s geopolitical shifts and the closing of some of your favorite clubs. How do you see club music as refuge from the world and your personal life?
I’m not interested in my music being overtly political. I’m not interested in any music like that, really, but I do believe that there’s so much negative energy flying around in the world right now, and the best thing about clubbing culture is that it’s founded in the idea of love and togetherness. It’s inclusive and it’s international. It’s universal. In a club, everyone is the same, and everyone is searching for some sort of higher energy. It’s not religious, and it’s not particularly spiritual. Everyone is there for a positive reason, and everyone’s in it together. I fully believe that even though a DJ is on a stage, they are just one part of a combined effort to find something more important than themselves. Everyone in that club plays a crucial role in that journey.
I do believe in the power of a nightclub. I’ve said before that my favorite moments are when you can close your eyes and what’s going on outside doesn’t matter anymore. It’s not about running away from it; it’s about this idea of taking a breath in such a hectic, modern world. Despite the volume of the club, I think it can offer quite a quiet space. I do believe in the quiet of the club as well: this idea that the positive energy outweighs anything negative that can happen in the outside world.
I’m curious how your deal with Mute came together. I think there’s an ethos that you and the label’s roster of huge electronic names share.
It’s a pleasure to be part of the Mute family. I still work very closely with [Erol Alkan’s label] Phantasy. It’s not as if i’m jumping ship, but to have [Mute] on board has been very interesting. It just came about really naturally; Daniel Miller got in touch and said that he was a real fan. I’m a huge fan of Mute; one of my favorite things about the label is that they’ve managed to push some pretty extreme underground music to pretty wide-reaching, far-reaching places. They’ve taken chances throughout their entire life. It feels very natural.
It’s gotta be a pretty big confidence booster to hear Daniel Miller come out of nowhere with that sort of praise.
I’m still extremely proud of how Drone Logic reached. It still seems to have a life of its own, even five years on. I’m still hearing these stories from people I respect and admire. I’ve had a lot of kids come up to me in clubs saying, “I didn’t really like techno music, or I thought I didn’t like it, until I got handed your album. It was the first bit of vinyl I owned, and now I have a full collection and I go to a record shop every week.”
That’s gotta be really inspiring.
Highly inspiring, yeah.
It reminds of last year, when I talked with Kelly Lee Owens; she mentioned that just from hanging out with you in the record store you worked in together, she picked up some things. How has the experience of very literally giving someone the basic tools that she needs to find and build her own incredible world changed your songwriting?
I’ve never considered myself to be any kind of teacher or mentor. I do believe in encouragement to be creative in your own way. That’s the only advice I can really offer anyone. It’s what really motivated me in the early days…. [What Erol Alkan and Andrew Weatherall] taught me is that if you create your own world and you do everything on your own terms, then you can’t really fail. Everything you do has to be entirely true and honest. It has to capture where you are in that specific point in your life right now. You can’t start thinking any bigger than that. You have to serve your own world as it is right there in that space. I think that’s what Kelly’s managed to do so well: This is clearly a record that meant a lot to her at that point.
I’ve had people ask, “Why does this record sound different than Drone Logic?” My honest response is: That was five years ago, and I’d be pretty worried if I was making the same record five years on.
What would you say to someone who just wants to go into their room, put on a big pair of headphones, and produce something that gets them out of the world? How would you tell them to start?
The only rule you should be returning to every single day is, “Does this represent who I am? Is this something that I would want to put out into the world?” Particularly in club music, it can be very tempting to make music that can anonymously fit into a set—“This DJ might play this. This might work in this club”—just to get onto a playlist. I couldn’t think of anything I want to do less than that. I want to make music that stays with you and stands on its own two feet. If people play the stuff, that’s cool, but really, you just have to make music that you want to make. I’m a firm believer that the truest and most honest music you make will last the longest. Looking over your shoulder is tempting, but it’s absolutely redundant creatively.
If you’re coming up with something, and you listen back to it, and you’re like, “Nothing sounds like this. Nobody’s really gonna like it,” that doesn’t really matter if it’s something that pleases you?
[If that’s how you feel], I think you’re probably on to something. You’ve probably turned a corner.
I’m curious, on the album, how the full-on ambient tracks relate to the ambient moments of the club tracks.
They all come from the same place. To me, a beautiful ambient or drone track has as much power as a peak-time techno record. It all represents this idea of psychedelic music. That’s what I’m interested in. By that, I mean music that can take you by the hand and lead you somewhere else. They all really represent the same thing. Some have a big kick drum beneath them, and some of them don’t. That’s the only difference to me. It’s all the same as far as I’m concerned.
It’s about the journey rather than about how the journey sounds, what tools you’re giving the listener to get there.
I think so. It’s this feeling of being able to put a record on and it taking you somewhere else. This is why I’m so interested in the album format. It requires patience. This is something I keep returning to. You put a record on, particularly a vinyl album, and you enter into this other world. You let this record take you somewhere else. It can be on headphones whilst traveling, it can be at home; it doesn’t really matter where it is, but you are letting this record have its own space, and you’re giving it your time.
Right now, in our modern world, this seems to be something that is often forgotten about. There seems to be a modern idea that things have to captivate us within 10 seconds, or we’re throwing it away. I just don’t believe it’s true. I don’t think we’re giving the listeners enough credit right now. I keep hearing all these stats; we’re just not giving humans enough credit. Humans haven’t changed! They haven’t evolved in the 20 years since the internet or whatever. We’re still the same; we still long for these moments that actually have an impact on you and stay with you. To me, an album is a great method for exploring this. With Drone Logic, I said the same thing. That was made as an album, and the reaction to it and the way it connected with people massively inspired me to push some of those ideas even further on this new album.
Another thing that’s really helped with this is, I’ve been really interested over the past few years in playing all-night long sets, from when the club opens to when it closes. I’ve done eight, nine, ten hours. I’m fascinated with this idea of building the atmosphere from the ground up and being able to start with these ambient droning moments. I’ve done nights where people have come in from the very beginning, and they’ve literally been lying on the floor, and then five hours later, they’re [on the dancefloor]. This goes back to the idea of it all coming from the same place. It all makes sense. As long as you can draw a line between all of these records, then why aren’t they existing all in the same space? That’s something I wanted to push on the album. It all works together. It all has a common goal.
Even more specifically than that, what, if anything, do bass and ambience each represent to you?
It all represents something similar. A warm, deep kick drum to some people might sound aggressive, but I only hear the depth and warmth in it. Even something abrasive like the breakdown on “Diminuendo”—it’s abrasive, but it still, in my head, has a warmth to it.
It doesn’t come off as angry; it comes off as endearing, but to me, there is this edge of aggression.
There’s an edge of aggression, but I don’t think I would ever use the word “aggression.” “Abrasive,” I would say. I still want the whole idea of the music to be inviting. I don’t know if I have any way of dividing up what an element of the music represents, because to me, it all comes together to me to make something that feels warm and inviting and enveloping. That’s something that I’m particularly keen on. For instance, I think that’s most summed up by the swelling noise that comes in on “Sensation.” Music feels bigger than you sometimes; that’s something I want to look for. I don’t really separate the idea of elements of the music representing anything. It all comes together as a whole.
Another question I’ve been asked is, “Drone Logic had vocals. Why doesn’t Song for Alpha?” My reply is, “Well, actually, it does.” There are vocals on Song for Alpha, but they’re buried deep within the overall wash and the overall wave of the music. There they’re; it’s just that I’ve become more [focused] on music acting as a whole rather than as separate parts.
What life experiences, global happenings, and books that you read since finishing Drone Logic have influenced the way you went about creating Song for Alpha?
The experiences I’ve touched upon, the traveling and things like this, that’s the biggest one. I’m hesitant to specify any particular political moments or anything. Overall, the general feeling is that there’s just a lot of negative energy in the world. [As for] books and film, [there] are two artists I’ve returned to that have always been in my life but I’ve really returned to; one is David Lynch. I’ve always been a huge fan of Lynch. I was a huge fan as a teenager, but I’ve really returned to his work lately. To me, he’s the perfect example of an auteur who creates his own world—this goes back to what we were saying—and invites you in, but everything is on his own terms. It’s not made for everyone—he’s a great example—he’s not making his art for anyone else other than himself. You can come in, and you can be a part of this world, and you don’t necessarily have to understand all of it or even like all of it. Just being inside his world is the interesting part of it.
Another artist on a similar level is the author [Haruki] Murakami. I’ve read [him] for a long time, but I’ve just been returning to his novels again recently. In a similar way to Lynch, it’s a world into which you get lost. You have to learn a lot of patience with his novels, I find, because they’re often very quiet; some people would say not a lot happens. This is the beauty of them. You enter into this world, and you walk around, and you just kind of have to give yourself up to them, the same way that you do with Lynch films. They take their time. Everything happens on their terms. They’re two artists who I’ve returned to and have been inspired by. They say, “You can come along for this ride if you want. It’s gonna be a real trip, but this is the pace we’re going at.” That’s been inspiring.