|A Guy Called Gerald on technology and live performance|
16th October 2014
A Guy Called Gerald has been making music since the mid-eighties, and his ethos has always been to utilise technological advances in his music-making and performance wherever possible – embracing the ethos behind techno music from the very beginning. He is currently working with Native Instruments on their Traktor DJ application, which can be used in conjunction with an iPad for live performances. In light of this, I spoke to him about his history with technology and what he’s up to now…
I wanted to start by asking when you started to move away from playing music via vinyl and performing with hardware…
I was actually using hardware way before anybody else. I started using hardware in 1988 and I’ve always been using hardware, I used anything. The only things available for playing other people’s music back then were turntables anyway. In the mid-eighties I used to be in this scratching/chopping crew – there’d be three or four of us doing a routine together where we’d try to make our own tune, before samplers; one would be doing the bass drum and the snares and another would be doing the kicks. We later added a drum machine to the set up.
I was always using whatever I could to perform with. I picked up a CDJ-style thing when it first came out – for me, what was most important was being able to take what I’d done in the studio and perform that in a live environment.
So, did you always have that mentality of wanting to perform your studio productions live?
Yeah, because there was so much red tape, especially in the early days when people didn’t understand dance music – in the manufacturing area for example, it was difficult to translate your idea over to someone because they didn’t have a clue what was going on. Pirate radio stations were playing a lot of the music but, aside from that, it was difficult to transmit to people. It’s was always my goal to find a way to get the music through to people.
How did you get hold of the hardware?
A lot of it was pretty cheap back then actually. You had the products that came off the back of the whole synth era, Roland 303 and 808, a few Korgs… but because people didn’t actually believe anything would come of this music, they weren’t that popular and it was relatively easy to pick them up from a second-hand shop. There weren’t so many who were interested in that type of thing, productions were being called ‘lifeless’ and ‘soulless’, but there was a core of anoraks who you’d find in the basements of music shops on the synths trying to make lots of noises. I fell into that crowd a bit and I used to get all the tech magazines.
Did you find it hard to get people to take you seriously in the beginning then?
Yeah, for sure. There were a few enthusiasts, but it was more underground [in the true sense of the word]. There was no media involved or anything, it was all about self-gratification – you were making music for yourself and maybe one or two mates. There was no outside interest in what was going on. I was into one of the local radio stations and, around about 1987, they started playing the stuff that I was into; early house music and stuff – I could hear that the people behind it were using the same kind of machines I was, so I’d send in my demos and they’d get played on that station.
With that in mind, can you remember a point where there was a real sea change and people began to take the music a bit more seriously?
I’d say around ’91, ’92 – there was a phase, which I’d call the ‘keyboard wizard’ phase when you had people like Adamski coming on the scene. Everything was raw, the music suited the mood of the time and it all started to fit into place. We started to do our own thing over here, away from the American stuff and a lot of manufacturers started to cater for DJs and producers, whereas before they were only really making more specialist equipment for high-end studios and musicians. It’s as if they started to make lighter versions of that stuff, sampling and memory got cheaper – before you knew it there was a cross-pollination of DJ equipment and the kind of stuff engineers would use in the studio.
The first time I saw a controller was when a friend of mine moved from Pioneer to Native Instruments – at the time I was playing off two laptops using Reason and these little Firewire soundcards – he was like, ‘We’ve just started to do these things that might be useful for you.’ I went down to look at it and it was basically still only made up out of Cornflakes packets!… But, I was blown away, it was space-age looking and I said I’d have one as soon as it was ready. I was hooked straight away. There was a bit of a tide against it, but I was really into it – I come from a studio background, I’ve always been in the studio, I wasn’t so into the DJing where it became this big obsession.
And now you’re playing on an iPad!
I play from laptops, too, or two iPads – it depends on the situation. If I’m playing at a place and I’ve got all the space in the world then I’ll bring synthesisers, drum machines and everything. If I’m in a booth where everything is hard-wired into the soundsystem, and there are five million DJs crammed into it with all their controllers and so on, then the best way is to plug into the system with an iPad and do my thing. It opens up so many possibilities that it’s stupid not to use them… for me, I mean some people don’t want to do that and it’s fine. There was a time a long while ago where certain people would turn up to a studio with their box of records and they would expect the engineer to make the track for them, that person today would definitely be scared to have control of each beat at the tips of their fingers, it would be daunting for them. Fair enough, not everyone has the hunger to do that. I like to concentrate on what I’m doing when I’m playing, so I’ll focus on every single sound. Some people are all about the tune in its entirety and that’s just how it is. It’s just the gradients of different people and what they want to do.
What happened with the vinyl thing is that is a lot easier for people to repeat what everyone says. At the moment it’s really hip to be playing vinyl, there’s nothing wrong with it…
…it’s like you say though, techno music has always been about technology and the future, so being an ardent vinyl fanatic and a techno head doesn’t strictly make sense. It goes against the music’s ethos..
Yeah I mean, they used whatever they could – without technology you wouldn’t have had sampled loops to even press onto the vinyl in the first place.
Isn’t it funny how far you’ve come… from battling to even get your music heard to playing the Royal Festival Hall a few months ago?
For sure, the music has matured to a level where it can actually be placed there and it’s ok. I’m surprised myself, as I said, I come from a background where this music was really, really underground – when we’d get our own little boxes together and go and play in some dingy little place. From that to playing in these big concert halls, it makes you realise how important it is to keep it going and stay true to it. In the early rave days there were a lot of people who went off to do something else and disappeared into the woodwork, with me it’s always been a case of doing something that has backbone to it and persevering. If it doesn’t exist where does your entertainment come from?
I was reading about this couple the other day, a middle-aged couple who were raving in the nineties and feel like they’re too old to go out raving now so they were doing it at home, having a big rave at home but the neighbours were complaining. I felt for them because it’s like, where do you go? [Laughs]. We should have access to the kind of places where you can go and see a performance by your favourite DJ, with your peers. There are a lot of people from my generation who are lost, their music was a lot more alternative or underground and it’s still about, but the crowds are a lot younger so they’ve been pushed out!
Maybe we need to set up over-30s or over-40s clubs!
What have you got coming up?
Besides a few remixes, I’m actually working with some friends on building our own sound system – we’re hoping to have it complete soon and roll it out at festivals and the like next year. Doing it old school style, instead of playing vinyl and keeping it real, we’re going the whole hog.
Traktor’s Everybody DJ competition is running right now, for more info click here. And A Guy Called Gerald is at Koko in Camden this Saturday.
[Author: Marcus Barnes]