February 18, 2022
Neil Landstrumm is feeling upbeat. This is noteworthy: the Scottish musician is known for being sardonic and outspoken. But he’s feeling good about his latest album Sell_By_Date—and about how he’s weathered the COVID-19 years so far. His record sales have been keeping him afloat and the resurrection of his early ‘00s punk-electronic project Shit & Cheap with artist Mat Consume energized him.
Then again, he’s always been adept at creative survival. He came up during the second big wave of UK techno, after the initial acid house explosion, and was schooled in Edinburgh clubs like Pure (run by JD Twitch—now of Optimo—along with DJ Brainstorm), while also working closely with contemporaries like Tobias Schmidt and Cristian Vogel. Landstrumm’s late ‘90s releases on foundational labels like Peacefrog and Tresor remain high points of harder, experimental techno. But when the excitement of that sound wore off, he evolved. Absorbing elements of punk, funk, grime, dubstep, old-school rave, and more, his 21st-century output easily matched the energy of his more straightforward techno records. On Sell_By_Date, he sounds as fresh and hungry as ever, steeped in electro and G-funk, but still very recognizably himself.
We asked Landstrumm about the winding path that brought him here, and how he’s kept his enthusiasm for music alive for so long.
Let’s start at the beginning: Was Edinburgh always your home?
No. I grew up in the Highlands. I moved nearer to Edinburgh in my teens, and then into the city for university…but my life took a different path.
That’s a pretty isolated place, especially pre-internet. Did you have any access to any culture outside the mainstream?
You definitely had to work for it. I remember seeing short clips about hip-hop b-boy culture on TV, and having to go into the local bookshop and look through their microfiche for ages in order to track down a book on how to breakdance. Then, when acid house came along, that was also so different and interesting, but I was still too young to participate. It was only about 1990 or ‘91, with the dawn of UK rave and the Northern bass ‘n’ bleep sound of Warp, that I could get involved. I spent a lot of time digging dusty crates in mobile disco shops for these acid-era gems on vinyl.
The influence of that bleep ’n’ bass sound has been consistent throughout your work. Can you remember the first time you heard that subsonic bass on a proper soundsystem?
Not the first, but I’ve got a really vivid memory of hearing an early UK jungle track at Twitch & Brainstorm’s club [Pure], and the bass practically pinning me to the wall. It was amazing, but at the same time, there was an almost panicked feeling—like it’s knocking the breath out of you when the bass dropped. It was unsettling, even. My first experience of hearing “LFO” [the legendary bleep ‘n’ bass track by the British group of the same name —ed.], at the Happy Mondays gig at the SECC in 1990, was also a game-changer. It’s hard to get those kind of moments now, where a new sound just shifts your whole musical perspective and opens your mind up to other possibilities. Bass does that, though—especially when accompanied with stark, steely bleeps.
So did you start wanting to make your own techno pretty quickly?
I did. But starting to produce, there were no instructions, and no easy way to get the equipment or the knowledge. Finding a 909 or a 303 was about hearing on the grapevine that someone had been to a band practice, and there was another guy who had that weird silver machine. And then you’d have to find his name and track him down via the phonebook. I did get to cut my teeth alongside the most amazing talent, though. Edinburgh never really shouted about its techno scene in quite the same way maybe Glasgow did, but there were still regular events with 600, 700, 1000 people weekly. And we were privileged to get the real cream of international talent like Underground Resistance, FUSE / Richie Hawtin, Aphex [Twin], [Jeff] Mills, Vogel, Orbital, Blake Baxter, Miss DJAX, [Andrew] Weatherall, Ragga Twins, Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia live, Green Velvet. One of my first live sets was with Hawtin doing his Plastikman thing live in 1994. Green Velvet was on the bill too, doing “Preacher Man” live with an MPC60, shouting the lyrics into his headphones on the stage at the Barrowlands.
The move from gigging locally to being known internationally came pretty quickly, right?
Yeah, that was around the time I released the first Peacefrog records thing in 1995 [the Index Man EP—ed.] and after the Mosquito release with Cristian Vogel & Si Begg. I’d met Cristian when he came up to play at Sativa. He’d heard some of my demos and invited me down to Brighton to record, and I quickly realized that I needed to up my production game. He was formally trained, whereas I was self-taught, and getting to see that electronic music studio he had access to at Sussex University, I realized that I needed to take it seriously. Cristian did the production for the Paskal EP for Mosquito, and released the record—which did very well—in 1994. Peacefrog contacted me fairly quickly after that wanting music to release. I already had the first couple of EPs recorded—they were more jacking Chicago house influenced—and the rest is, as they say, history.
Cristian got signed to Tresor in 1995, and I rode on his coattails to Berlin. I recorded the Understanding Disinformation LP in 1996, which was a much heavier, darker, sub-bass science-fiction-influenced sound, but still aimed for the funk and flair. Then in ‘97 was the Bedrooms and Cities LP, where I was going for big basslines and swung 4×4 rhythms before I really knew what speed garage was. I used the money from Bedrooms and Cities to move to New York in August 1997. Remember, these records sold big—we were selling 10, 12, 15,000 albums. Funnily, it was not so big in the UK. We had a few outposts where we’d get good crowds, like House of God in Birmingham, The Orbit in Morley, and Sativa of course. But as far as record sales go, it was much more successful in Europe and other parts of the world. We were international, but the UK dance music press didn’t really cover it much. Then again, part of our thing was not playing the game with the press. Perhaps in hindsight, that was a bit foolish. But we were very protective over our sound and scene, and liked to keep it ice cold. It was the antithesis of today, where everything is exposed immediately, you post pictures of yourself constantly, and the music seems the least important element of it all. We wanted to be as different to everyone else in the techno scene as possible—to keep some individuality.
So you basically got on a rollercoaster in 1995, but then it seemed to stop almost as quickly. What happened?
Techno got formulaic. It got very dull, and became stuck in this loop of death. For a while, it felt like we were making something new and alternative. But when people just started copying what we were doing, it felt like it had lost its originality. It’s always the way with these things. There was no falling out or anything like that, but I know Cristian got increasingly fed up with the club vibe and wanted something else—which I never did, really. I just wanted to keep pushing it forward. Cristian had Super_Collider with Jamie [Lidell] to focus on, and moved more and more into arty, experimental stuff. Around the millennium, that feeling of us all being part of the same thing, at least club-music-wise, kind of dissipated. At the same time, Mat Consume and myself were working on the Trash label with our project Shit & Cheap which felt like a kind of anti-techno. That was a seed for the new breakcore sound which was emerging too.
And at what point did you start to feel an affinity to dubstep and grime?
The first thing that got me was Jon E Cash and Black Ops, about 2003—and that came through John Peel. Hearing Digital Mystikz was from Peel, too. I met Mala when he came to Glasgow for the first time, playing to about 40 folks there! The DMZ gigs in Leeds were at the West Indian Centre. It felt like they were all channeling a very similar set of influences, synth sounds, and experiences, but that half-step rhythm gave it a whole new way of doing things. I felt like I could contribute my experience to it, so I started producing bits in that style, which became the seeds for what I released on Planet Mu. I never felt like I was a part of that world or anything, but I was quite happy out on the fringes of it as an outsider.
But there was a certain noisy grime/dubstep/rave fusion thing going on with you…
Yeah, I remember when Simon Reynolds wrote a piece saying that Restaurant of Assassins and [Zomby’s] Where Were U In 92? were part of some sort of rave revival thing. We were the front runners, but he gave Zomby first place. That’s OK [laughs]. Lord For £39 followed and explored the more Jamaican dancehall side of things. So I certainly fit in with what Planet Mu was about at that point. But that also ran its course, ending with the mini-LP Bambaataa Eats His Breakfast. I did actually watch Afrika Bambaataa eat his breakfast one morning in Detroit, by the way.
In the meantime, I was doing other things. I was starting to do Italo disco-influenced tracks for David Vunk’s label Moustache and for Gerd Janson’s Running Back. I was doing the Doubleheart project with JD Twitch and Modini with Hostage—so I wasn’t just known for one thing. I deliberately wanted to massively diversify, and it’s proved to have been a very good thing. I think actually one big thing that got me through to the other side was being invited to play quite arty festivals and one-off gigs…I’ve never been a mainstream techno artist and have always had a strong hand in the visual representation of my work, which those gigs encouraged.
I remember seeing you play in the Norwegian fjords with Kode 9 and Faust.
Yeah, and Liquid Liquid [at Numusic festival in Stavanger, 2009]. It was so cool to meet them and be on the same bill. So yes, exactly that kind of thing. I could make a mixture of stuff, do it all live, and be accepted on these pretty diverse lineups. I love that.
Do you think maybe it was easy for you to diversify because you have such a distinctive sound palette so that people could still tell it’s you?
People always say this, that they can recognize one of my tracks straight away. I can’t hear it myself, but I guess it’s there, like a code. I haven’t changed my setup hugely—I still have the old kit that I’ve had since the beginning. I’m still keen on the older gear; I’m heavily into using the MPC3000 and Moog Sub-37 at the moment. I’ve just upped the quality of the outboard gear along the way. I guess you could say I’m quite focused on embedding my own signature into the music because I don’t want to sound like everyone else, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Obviously, there are constants to my sound and my shit fingers keep hitting the same keys.
So to bring us up to date, have you felt fairly secure in your ability to stay the course over the last decade?
Well, as much as anyone ever feels secure in music…But yeah, like I say, the fact people don’t expect just one thing from me means I’ve managed to avoid the weight of expectation and to connect with a good mix of people.
The new album really joins the dots across decades. There’s familiar old electro and boogie samples, but there’s footwork and modern trap rhythms, too. Does the title Sell_By_Date reflect any of the musical influences on the album?
“Sell_By_Date” was more a comment on wanting this record to be future-proofed, as it’s pushing new tempos and rhythms to new audiences. Good techno doesn’t have a sell-by-date. It matures over time. So there’s a link there, as certain older records still absolutely sound like the future. I’ve deliberately dropped the old rave references on this one, taking slices of different influences—particularly from West Coast U.S. music, but blended with some UK dark tones and grime—and specifically chosen different tempos for tracks. I don’t think it sounds like anyone else It’s not something you will ‘get’ on a first listen, and it requires a bit of effort to mix it [live]. But it’s really been working well in the clubs since they re-opened, and that’s where new material gets tried out first. It’s heavy, abstract, and warm but it’s not got that dry-hump sample-pack-techno bang-bang hiss-hiss hollow sound. It’s just way looser and more fun to dance to. Let’s just see where it goes this year! I can’t wait for everything to shift again, to be honest. Electronic music is always at its best between [musical] shifts and changes, where it’s not yet fully formed. That’s where the sweet spot lies.