- Wed, 2011-03-09 12:14
The musical escapades of Luke Vibert have undulated across a wide variety of electronic sub-genres ever since late 80's acid-house and techno were twisted with experimental translation. The development of ambient soundscapes and forward thinking, synthetic music composition grew from a select few Cornwall based bedroom-studios, particularly those belonging to Richard D. James (Aphex Twin) and Luke Vibert, thus pioneering a genre of music highly treasured by a devout underground following.
With the Ninja Tune release of Toomorrow under the very first of his very many aliases - Wagon Christ, I Like Music sat down for a lengthy chat with Luke Vibert. Starting with the history of Wagon Christ, we chat about his process of making music, hundreds of unreleased tunes, huge mid 90's success, his plans for the future and much more.
"I Like Music because…I don’t know any better! I don’t even feel like I like music really...I mean, I definitely do like it, I definitely love it, but it feels more like I don’t have a choice." Luke Vibert
ILM: All hail the new Wagon Christ album Toomorrow, which possesses some rather wonderful cover art by Celyn …
Luke: Yeah, he did my last two as well, which are definitely not as mad as the new one. It’s so kind of tense but then cute… I love it. There’s a video coming soon that’s by him. He’s an old friend from Falmouth. It’s good to live in Falmouth like I did as a kid…because of the art school you get people coming down from all over England. That’s how I got into dance music really. I didn’t know anything about acid house or whatever they called it at the time in ’88 or ’89, when I was about 15 years old. These art school kids were like “check this out!” Passing round cassettes and old school stuff…
ILM: Your discography includes releases under a number of different names on a variety of labels – notably Ninja Tune, Rephlex and Planet Mu. Your involvement with the label varies greatly, from working incredibly closely to allowing them to choose entire tracklistings. How did you work with Ninja Tune for this release?
Luke: Toomorrow was definitely an album start to finish. Not all the tracks were made around the same time, but they were all compiled together. It took me quite a while after Pete from Ninja said “another Wagon album, sir?” I’d been saving all my favourite sort of Wagon Christ type tracks – which is hard to say because I don’t really know what that means – Wagon Christ is more sample-y stuff I suppose. So I saved a load of my best tracks and then we had a session together with some slight compromising. There were a few too many down-tempo tracks for them, I’d always thought of Wagon Christ as more like home listening, chilled out stuff. But they wanted a couple more up tempo tracks on it, so I stuck on a couple more like Wake Up and maybe Manalyze, whatever it’s called, Manalyze This.
ILM: Manalyze This! ended up as the first track we heard from Toomorrow...
Luke: Yeah, I’d only done that one maybe six months ago, it was really fresh when we were compiling the album. I sent it to Pete and slightly regretted it, I kept thinking I wouldn’t like it in a year or so, but I think it’s alright really.
ILM: Well someone has described it as ‘the essence of fresh’ on Sound Cloud…
Luke: Nice! That was the one Pete wanted Celyn to make a video for. Luckily Celyn changed it, he said he wasn’t getting any inspiration or whatever from it and asked if he could choose his own track for the video. I was like “yes, yes!” He chose a much better track, a more weird, home listening-y, melodic one which I was pleased with. I didn’t think Manalyze This! suited a video so much, it’s more of a 12 inch-y track for me, there’s not that much melody going on – there’s more bass beats and weird samples. I love that stuff but I wouldn’t want a whole album like that. I really bashed it out too; I did it in a day!
ILM: And you’re pleased with the final Toomorrow selection?
Luke: Yeah, I’m really happy now, on reflection it’s a nice mix. Maybe it would have been nice to get one mad jungle track or something in there, but that doesn’t really fit with the Wagon Christ vibe. If possible I’d always like an album to really reflect everything that I like. But that’s really hard because I like so much different stuff, so I’m kind of a bit out on a limb there. Most labels are like “we like these few but not these ones, they don’t fit together.” I think I’ve got quite a broad, open-minded kind of head.
ILM: So you’re not opposed to take a bit of direction from them…
Luke: Yeah, if I trust them that’s really cool. It’s the same with Mike from Planet Mu, I just really trust him – or at least he has a better idea than I do about what sounds good for his label. Usually with Mike I give him way too many tracks – thirty or even fifty occasionally, and I’ll say “right, there you go! Sort them out.”
Luke: Yeah, because I can’t choose. It just depends what mood you’re in. Sometimes I just think ‘well I like that, I like that.’ I can’t decide which is gonna fit better.
ILM: If you’re deep into something it’s hard to step away and look at it constructively…
Luke: Yeah, it really is. That’s also why I often wait a year or so. When I’ve done a track I don’t give it to anyone at first. I’ve had too many times in the past where I’ve thought “yeah I really love this track, I want it out really quick!” and then six months after I’ve released it I think 'shit, I like it but not nearly as much as I did.’ And then another one will grow on me and I realise ‘shit, actually this one’s better than that one!’ It usually takes a few years before I realise what I actually think about a track. Sometimes I’ll like a certain track more than another because it’s been really good fun to work on, I’ve had a nice easy ride making it.
ILM: That's similar to the quote by the writer F.Scott Fitzgerald “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke…” just because certain things really resonate for you, doesn't mean they will for others...
Luke: Ha! I put so many exclamation marks in my music. I kinda wish I didn’t, but I can’t help it. For me, the exclamation marks are mainly the vocal samples. Sometimes I can leave a track kind of naked with no vocals, but usually I have to sort of pepper it with vocal samples which are definitely like “look at me, listen to me!” I can’t help it. If loads of other people did it I wouldn’t do it, but not many people do. I do it for my own tracks so I can hear it in them. I really like disparate voices – not talking to each other, but sort of one sample that makes me think of another. Maybe one person saying “get me a tape ready!” then another saying “ok, here’s my tape!” Once I’ve done all the music it kind of gives me another level to get in to.
ILM: So you’re continually adding to a bank of samples?
Luke: Yeah, every time I buy records, find something on YouTube or wherever I hear a nice sample, I’ll quickly put it aside into whatever folder works. I’ve got a big folder called Vox with all the voice things – then inside there’s singing, talking, vocoda… all kinds of different categories. When I’m doing a track I’ll just browse through them, find the first one I like then try and find loads of others that fit with that. The serach will just get more and more specific.
ILM: How long does it typically take for you to complete a track?
Luke: Usually I take a few weeks – not working on it all the time but sort of loading it up for an hour or two here and there and thinking ‘oh, I can do a bit more.’ Manalyze was really old style, I just blitzed it start to finish. But yeah, I do kind of fear maybe in a few months I won't like it so much, it’s so fresh compared to the others, some are like seven odd years old, so I know I like them ‘cause they’ve been around so long.
ILM: Ha! Some of the tracks on Toomorrow are seven years old?
Luke: Yeah! I’ve remixed them all and brought them up to date, or at least made the sounds a bit more – more so they blend together.
ILM: Where do you create your music these days?
Luke: On this one I think it was all computer, I’m just trying to think…. Maybe there were odd synths I pulled out and just resampled. I do have a few synths and drum machines, but I haven’t had a studio set up for a while now. I’m definitely going to soon, I just moved to a new place in January and I’ve got a spare room which is definitely ear-marked for a studio. But generally I don’t really need one. All the keyboard samplers and things I have are boxed up at home, I can do all that so easily on my computer now.
ILM: And for you there’s no difference in sound quality?
Luke: Oh yeah, it does sound better, but it just takes ten times longer! I’ve got a couple of anal friends who say “oh you should really get all your stuff out and use your mixer old school style.” But for this yeah, I think every track was off my laptop, just the odd sound where I thought “oh, that’d be nice if I got my 303 out or Juno whatever keyboard…” and I’m lucky to have some of them, they’re really expensive now! I got them for about a hundred quid a few years ago, now they’re about a thousand. But yeah, it’s been a long time since I had a proper studio. I think partly ‘cause of having kids – I did have one and then the kids would just come in and start trashing it or whatever because they don’t have a playroom…it became a kind of studio-stroke-kids playroom!
ILM: In a 2008 interview you said you had around six or seven hundred unreleased tracks…
Luke: Oh yeah, God, so many more than that now!
ILM: What’s the difference between the ones you use and the ones you keep back?
Luke: Often the ones I’ve saved are my favourites in a way. I’m sort of saving them for something that never ends up happening, which is quite frustrating. When I look back, I suppose I haven’t released some of my favourite tracks because I think ‘oh no, that doesn’t quite fit with this, it’s a bit better than this group of tracks.’ But then it never gets used, which is a bit sad. I’ve tried to off-load some of the older ones sometimes and no-one wants them! I probably tried to give them to Planet Mu or Rephlex and they’d say “oh no, don’t want that one!”
ILM: Do you think people might get to hear some of them at some point?
Luke: Oh yeah, I’m sure, God yeah. I’ll probably just release a hard-drive at some point if they haven’t come out. Here’s 5000 tracks everyone! Enjoy! We were talking about doing a double album - two CDs or four vinyl - and I managed to talk Pete out of it. Even though I’ve got that many that I really like, it just feels a bit too much. I remember as a younger person getting massive albums by people I really liked, maybe by Prince or something and I’ve always preferred a more concise ten or fifteen tracks. I think with more tracks it gets too confusing.
ILM: You’ve released under several different names... We would like to take this wonderful opportunity to ask you about them, firstly Wagon Christ, the one which started everything…
Luke: Yeah. Wagon Christ was just what I was called at first. I didn’t want to be Luke Vibert or anything else. For three or four years it was just Wagon Christ and at that point I was trying to get out any music I liked under that name. I hadn’t really thought ‘Wagon Christ should be this kind of music’, although I had fallen into ambient stuff by mistake. The first label I was on released a couple of my EPs which were more techno-y. It was ’93 and for an album they said “we’re not selling any techno albums at the moment, we’re only selling ambient albums. Have you made any ambient music?” And I was like “yeah. Yeah! Of course!” just completely lying. So the first couple of Wagon Christ albums ended up more ambient. I still like them, but it doesn’t really feel like me just because I was trying a bit too hard to be something I didn’t really understand.
ILM: And Plug?
Luke: At that point, none of my friends liked drum and bass at all. That in turn gave me this world view that no-one who liked funkier, down tempo stuff would also like jungle. So I thought ‘oh shit, better not mix these tracks up because it’ll alienate too many people.’ So I made up Plug for the jungle-y stuff. Then I signed a deal with Mo’ Wax and had to come up with another name, and I thought ‘God, I really don’t want another name!’ so that was when I decided to just be Luke Vibert.
ILM: Do you associate that with any sound in particular?
Luke: No, that wasn’t any kind of music. It was just whatever me and James Lavelle, the Mo’ Wax guy, kind of agreed on. It’s usually just been because I’m signed to another label and need another name. I thought Kerrier District on Rephlex was going to be a one-off thing – but then I got in to making liveish disco stuff, and again I thought ‘this doesn’t really sound like me, I’d better come up with a new name.’ Same with Amen Andrews, Spac Hand Luke – they were all Rephlex ones. I probably wouldn’t have even released them, but I’m really good mates with Grant. He hears all my tracks anyway at some point or another. He was like “ah man, you’ve gotta put these up, we should group these tracks together.” When someone does that I’m like “yeah ok, fine, put them out.” If he hadn’t said that I probably wouldn’t have put them out, I would have just stayed with Wagon Christ, Plug and Luke Vibert. But it’s nice to get more stuff out.
ILM: Are there any more planned for the future?
Luke: Um…Are there any other aliases? Those were the main five or six. Although I have started doing cheesy, garage-y, clubby stuff over the last couple of years, so if I release that, shit! That’s another name I’ll have to come up with. It really doesn’t sound like me, it sounds more like Todd Terry or some kind of cheesy house person. Admittedly with weird noises instead of cheesy singing vocals. And weird shouting – but generally, it doesn’t sound like me!
ILM: Your collaboration with pedal steel guitarist B J Cole was rather fantastic and is highly rated by many. However, your collaborations are few and far between. What do you look for in terms of musical collaboration?
Luke: Definitely different kinds of people working together. I’ve tried a few times with people that are quite similar to me. Usually friends like Squarepusher or Aphex or other mates, and it’s fine, we’ll get pissed or whatever and have a laugh, but usually it’s just too similar. Like me, they do everything themselves. So you end up thinking ‘oh shit, I wish I was doing the bass line, why's he doing that with the high hats?’ It’s just too annoying. It’s nice with a rapper because they’re totally different, like B J Cole, he was just on the peddle steel. I thought we’d only do one, novelty peddle-steel track together, but then he asked for an acid backing track, then a mad drum and bass one. Slowly he was doing all this different stuff on different tracks and I thought ‘shit, we could actually release an album that doesn’t all sound the same.’
ILM: So it’s not something you actively persue...?
Luke: No, because I love doing everything myself! I’m a total control freak! Usually anything anyone else does, for me, kind of takes away slightly from what I’ve done or whatever I’ve put in. But it was wicked with B.J. I’d like to do another one but I think it’s maybe too much for him. Like I said, I have so many tracks laying around, I sent him about thirty backing tracks two years ago and I think it did his head in a bit. He has to do a lot more work than me, or at least, he has to play the things over and over for weeks to work out what he’s going to do. I can knock out a backing track in a couple of hours.
ILM: Back when this all began, you were making music in your Cornwall bedroom. As a result, you've been hailed alongside Aphex Twin as a forefather of the experimental, electronic genres. Going right back to those early days, did you have any idea you were starting something so new?
Luke: It’s hard to think about. I think we definitely did think it was new and different, but then, we were in Cornwall so we didn’t really know! We just didn’t hear much contemporary music. Everything was at least a year late in those pre-internet days! People say the summer of love was ’88 or whatever, but in Cornwall we knew nothing about acid or whatever. I think early ’89 was the first time anything like that came to Cornwall. Some coke-head DJ from London got a job in this sweet club in Cornwall. And the guy would literally pay him in coke, and he just made us realise, maybe more for Aphex than me. He was playing stuff like 808 State and we hadn’t heard anything like that. We were kind of working in a similar-ish field but because we didn’t know anything like that, we were sort of getting it a bit wrong, doing something a bit different to everyone else.
ILM: Though you were making music at a similar time from the same place, I've read that Aphex was still a huge influence on you...
Luke: He was the big driving force. He just used to distort things and do stuff that you’re not really supposed to do in the studio. I’ve always liked music, ever since I was a kid, pop music and Prince and stuff. But Aphex didn't, he just liked fiddling with electronics. It wasn’t until he heard something on John Peel, much later when he was a teenager. At that time, we’d just turn up with something stupidly loud and think ‘oh that sounds good, splat!’ But yeah, Aphex was different. And it’s only when you really hear other people that you think Christ, it really was different at that time.
ILM: The fact that you were out on a limb in Cornwall seems to have paid off...
Luke: There was no scene in Cornwall! We didn’t really have anything to follow, which I think was really good. Being in London I’m sure I would’ve just fallen into whatever – hip hop probably, and I’d have ended up being a DJ and hip hop backing track maker. But in Cornwall it was all mixed up; we didn’t really think about it as hip hop, we’d just think ‘oh there’s rapping on this track or this track’s more up tempo with acidy noises.’ It was all just music. I think that was the important thing – not worrying about genres and things like that.
ILM: Since those early days a lot has happened…
Luke: I know, but it’s gone so quickly. It’s mad! It really doesn’t feel that long ago.
ILM: Looking back on your career so far, which have been some of the most memorable moments?
Luke: It depends I suppose, on different levels. One thing I look back to is the mid 90s, that was a mad time. I was just really lucky. It’s partly due to all the press, it definitely didn’t correlate with the amount of records I was selling, I’ve never sold that many records. But at one point I was doing really well with press and getting loads of interviews, photo sessions and things. That led to remixes. I think record labels used to all read those mags, they obviously thought ‘oh, he’s quite popular, let’s get him to remix our latest whoever person we’re trying out.’ And I’d get all these mad remixes in the mid ‘90s, sometimes like ten grand just for one remix! That’s just a highlight purely on a business level, obviously, but that was a mad time looking back. It was one of those times when I thought ‘wow, this is amazing, it’s only going to get better!’ But it just sort of fell off completely, by the late ‘90s no-one was asking me for remixes anymore and when they did it was always either free or some special deal, “I’ll do one for you and you do one for me” or whatever. But that’s a mad highlight when I think back – it was just so easy. I could do remixes really quick too and at one point I was earning so much money! Ha ha! It was really exciting, I just spent it all though! Ha ha!
ILM: How about playing sets...
Luke: Well, that’s kind of got better really! Mainly I think, because I’ve relaxed. I used to just be too nervous. It’s only really been over the last five years that I can kind of relax and actually occasionally look at the audience, rather than trying to get it done and get off stage as quickly as possible!
ILM: You've played all over the world! What have been some of those highlights?
Luke: I have done some mad gigs. Maybe America, back in the mid ‘90s again. Most of my highlights will probably be back to the mid ‘90s, there were lots of things happening for the first time! I was one of the first people to play jungle to American kids, that was really fun. They’d just never heard anything like it – they were trying to dance really fast to this music! Ha ha! There’s loads of funny memories. Playing places like Detroit, where you can’t even get a gig anymore because it’s so run down, it’s fucked. But at that point there was still a good scene in America. I think it’s gone a lot more rocky or whatever, it’s not so dance-y in America now. Or at least it’s just proper clubs, not me or Aphex type music, so it’s just hard to make it work out there now. I haven’t done a tour of America for God knows how many years…
ILM: What made those American tours so special?
Luke: Yeah, those were wicked tours just driving around America for a few weeks. That was great. We were driving, not flying, so you could take whatever drugs and be like ‘nnngh’ on the tour bus – really good, doing acid looking out the window, just going 'ooooooooo'. It was also pre-responsibilities. My daughter was born in 2000, so since then life’s definitely gone better, it’s more manageable, I can live day to day a lot easier. In the past I was usually a bit fucked most of the time. Just not sleeping, just on any kind of drug staying up all night, but that was kind of why I think it was partly such a good time for music, like art. I do think if you fuck yourself up a bit that can kind of produce the best results for other people…just not necessarily for your head.
ILM: Through having a child I suppose you feel more connected to other people, more normal…
Luke: More like everyone else, yeah. Which is really nice, but not so good for creativity. In a way it’s good to be on your own and a bit fucked up...
ILM: What would be your advice to young artists?
Luke: I kind of feel sorry for them initially, or at least I feel like I was really lucky from the time that I was around. We didn’t realise, but we were sort of right at those early stages of making music from your bedroom. It seemed really easy at the time but I’m sure I was lucky; you’d just send a few tapes around, people would write back “oh yeah, we like this.” It was just that easy – there weren’t many people making it, there was a lot more money for the labels… It’s a tough time now. I mean the web’s great too, anyone can whack stuff up on the web but then, everybody does. It’s definitely harder to be seen these days. You’ve gotta either be gorgeous or have some kind of gimmick, it’s harder to be some kind of average Joe.
ILM: That communal aspect of sharing music has moved almost fully online now…
Luke: Yeah, it’s not so specialist. You don’t get that weird feeling. In the past before the internet, you’d kind of get some slightly chuffed feeling of discovering something like ‘oh wow, this is great, I’ve found it’ and not many other people had discovered it. Even some of the most obscure records I’ve got are all up online somewhere, someone’s written about them somewhere – I think there’s one record, literally, that I’ve got that no-one’s written about on the internet. I only know because I was recording it in the other day, this weird old electro track. Often when I record something in and I’ve got nothing to do for five minutes when I’m putting the vinyl on my computer so I can DJ it, I go online, write the name of the record in and then see what people have written about it. And it’s just so rare now to find something that isn’t really well documented!
ILM: Do you still buy records?
Luke: Oh God yeah! I haven’t for a few months now because I had such a horrible tax bill, it’s a bit tight at the moment moneywise. But yeah, it’s my biggest vice.
ILM: How many do you have?
Luke: I don’t know – about 20,000 I think. Roughly, probably. At a guess.
ILM: Are they at home?
Luke: Yeah, I’ve got about five out and on display or a bit more maybe – between five and ten, then loads in the attic hidden away. But they’re kind of the more interesting ones really – the ones that are out are like DJ style ones from hip hop to hardcore drum and bass, techno or whatever and everything in between. But yeah, the ones upstairs are more soundtrack, weird, easy listening stuff I bought maybe more for sampling purposes back in the day. God, I’ve got so many things I should go through and listen to but it’s just such a big pile, I can’t face it at the moment.
ILM: What are your future plans?
Luke: Yeah, I’m doing a Ninja show on 19th March 2011 [get tickets here!]. I’m doing a Plug thing for Ninja which is really old, just the oldest jungle stuff I made, ’94 to ’96 kind of era. I was amazed, they just kind of talked me into it. Pete read in some interview that I did that I had loads of old Plug tracks that I hadn’t released. He sent me an email saying “would you be interested in doing an album?” And I was like “mm, not sure…” He was like “with an advance?” and I was like “yeah, ok, let’s do it!” Then a Planet Mu definitely in September, just a Luke Vibert one which I think is a bit more up tempo, dancey style than the Wagon. Also a bit more analogue, a few acidy tracks. Kerrier District’s coming very soon I think, just an EP. But yeah, loads really. There’s probably something I’ve forgotten about... I’m always working.
ILM: Cool. We're very glad that you are.
Luke: Yeah, well like I said in the I Like Music because, it’s like I don’t have a choice. Especially having the kids…I have a few weeks of not making music every so often and I just turn into a really horrible person. I mean listening too, I couldn’t imagine if you couldn’t listen to music any more, I’d literally probably go mad in about three days or something. But even making it – I just become a real moody bastard if I can’t get that release out.