Modular techno, acid rock and Freerotation: A discussion with Steevio
It’s not easy for an artist to maintain a genuine independent ethic in this day and age. Amid the drudgery of internet exposure, whether it be shameless self-promotion or carefully marketed anonymity, there are not many who choose to make and share their music in a truly independent way. Some of Steevio’s working practices, such as making his music without a computer, are actually quite en vogue these days, but for the Sunderland-born, North Wales-dwelling techno producer this approach has been a way of life since before the dawn of house music.
A quick look at a long-neglected Discogs entry mentions his involvement in one of the UKs first electro-funk clubs, The Sidewalk, and he’ll happily recount the days spent playing guitar for acid rock outfit Dead Flowers before the first strains of techno seduced him – and all of his mates – in the space of about two months. After a number of years spent throwing free parties in Newcastle with fellow cohorts in the Roost Records acid techno collective, a crackdown in the policing of raves meant a change of scenery was needed, and Steevio and his partner Suzybee relocated to the pastoral climes of North Wales, and the Mindtours label was born.
After meeting Tom and Joe Ellis and Leif on the outdoor party circuit in the area, he nurtured their unique production talents while also steering his own music away from 130-140 bpm techno into a slower, more intricate 2-step minimalism. As a loose-limbed scene of sorts started to form around the pockets of artistry hidden out in those rolling hills, so was born the Freerotation festival.
Beginning as a 300-strong gathering in 2007 (bar one fabled test-run at an Outdoor Activity Centre in the hills), in five years the event has become one of the most highly regarded electronic music festivals in the world. The line-up is certainly niche, appealing to deeper, more experimental shades of house, techno and dubstep, but of equal importance is the atmosphere the event inspires. Held in a mansion with the Brecon Beacons as a backdrop, the weekend is the pinnacle for meaningful dance music.
Understandably, the commitments of Freerotation have meant that Steevio’s music has been sharing headspace with the logistics of a three-day festival, and so it’s been a while since a new Steevio release emerged. As of Spring this year, a new four-track Mindtours release emerged under the no-nonsense banner of Modular Techno Vol. 1, yielding the first publicly available results of his decision to switch to a modular studio set up.
“Every day I record at least three hours of what comes into my head at that moment, so I’ve got absolutely tons of material,” Steevio explains when pressed on the origins of the material on Modular Techno Vol. 1. “I thought I’d put out the stuff I’ve done last year, because if I don’t it’ll just disappear and I’ll never use it. It’s slightly dated compared to the stuff I’m doing now, but I just wanted to put it out.”
There’s an undeniable rawness to the tracks on the record, which comes not least as a result of the live ethic Steevio places on his production process. All his tracks are recorded in one take straight from the hardware, as he tweaks the elements and triggers the patterns on the fly. Much of this approach is spurred on by the modular equipment he uses; in essence a self-built performance device tailored specifically to your own individual needs.
“It’s really about control over the way that the patterns come together,” Steevio explains. “I’m using similar sounds to the ones I’ve always used, but with a modular you don’t arrange the music. It’s basically different trigger patterns and fractalised sequences looping and interacting in complex ways. Everything happens in the moment, so it’s about getting as many controls in front of you as possible to do as many things as possible.”
It’s been a slow process of learning and developing for Steevio, when he had been sequencing his tracks on his computer, but the purpose of this re-shuffled work practice seems clear. “It’s about how you wire it all up so that in a live situation you think ‘oh I wouldn’t mind hearing that happen’ and you just reach out and turn the knob and it happens.”
It’s certainly a brave move to uproot your way of making music, not least for an artist who had already carved a clear sound for himself. The defining characteristic of Steevio’s music, at least for the past decade, has been intricate, inter-locking drum patterns with a pronounced funk to them, while the melodic elements come in equally lean and fluid forms. “I got bored of hearing the same 4/4 motifs like snare drums and claps on the beats 2 and 4, which is the common house method of punctuating the rhythm,” Steevio states. “I just sat down and said I’ll never ever use those things, so it leaves it open to me mixing different polyrhythms together to make new rhythms.”
Polyrhythms take average beat programming into a more complex realm, arguably made much simpler if you have a timeline sequencer on a screen to map the patterns out on. “When I went to the modular, the first thing I tried to do was keep that approach but it had to be slimmed down a bit,” Steevio admits, having ditched software sequencing and resigning his computer to a glorified tape recorder. “My tracks aren’t as complex as before, but that’s OK. I quite like the fact that it has made everything a little bit sparser. It makes you get the best out of what you’ve got.”
Steevio sits on the reams of recorded material he generates, as his understanding of the modular way develops, letting months pass by until revisiting the results and whittling them down to workable tracks. With an ever-strengthening command over his music in the instant that it’s being produced and moving away from laborious arranging and editing, it’s palpable to see the correlation with his rock band roots. “It’s just like practicing on an instrument,” Steevio enthuses. “When you first start you’re a bit clumsy. You haven’t quite got the control, but as you go along you get slicker and slicker.”
It’s safe to say there aren’t many artists producing tracks quite like Steevio at the moment, and he’s the first to acknowledge that it’s difficult at times to see where his brand of bumping, complex techno fits in at a time when Ostgut Ton and Sandwell District rule the day. In some ways the Freerotation line-ups reflect Steevio’s quandry about the lack of music that delivers what the experimental principles of techno promise.
There’s a spread to the styles to be found at Freerotation, from deep house through to a more jacking Chicago style, from hypnotic techno to tough minimalist bangers, from wild dubstep variations to ambient soundscapes. However all those elements have a common thread running through them which knits the whole weekend together. Whether it would be classed as “techno” or not, all the music played embodies that spirit, that dance music can mean more than just a soundtrack to a night out.
“I find it very difficult to programme techno people at Freerotation,” Steevio reveals, “because there’s been quite a lot of house people on over the last few years and it’s started to get that sort of reputation for being a bit more house-y than techno-y.” Be that as it may, with Detroit’s DJ Bone and Tresor mainstay Pacou prominent on the bill this year, it’s not as though proper ballsy techno isn’t being catered for. However it doesn’t detract from the fact that Steevio is still struggling to find many people meeting his expectation of what techno should be able to do.
“I’d really like to find some good techno,” he says hopefully. “Most of it’s just really formulaic, I’m wanting to hear something fresh. For me, our resident Sam Watson has got that sort of techno that I’m quite into. The deeper, more hypnotic, tripped-out sort of stuff.”
As with many parties, an aspect of Freerotation that sometimes gets overlooked by the crowd is the residents. Not so much the likes of Move D, Portable and Soulphiction who feature heavily each year, but the core collective of DJs and producers from Wales who together help steer the festival. As well as Sam’s particular brand of techno, Steevio also talks emphatically about the selector talents of Joe Ellis. “I just think ‘why is this guy not a famous DJ?’ He just seems to see through the music, and sees what a lot of other people can’t see.”
As well as Sam and Joe, the crew of musicians includes the more established likes of Tom Demac, Tom Ellis and Leif. Steevio has had a guiding hand in all of their production careers, from helping to master and release Tom Ellis and Leif’s first vinyl appearance, to inviting Tom Demac to bolster some of his early releases in the Mindtours studio. Even with individual careers, everyone from this close-knit group of friends remains a part of the loosely-formed Freerotation Collective. However the festival itself doesn’t always provide the best platform to fully appreciate the combination of their sounds as a unit, what with all the peaks and troughs of the rest of the weekend in between. Now though additional events are planned for later in the year, and the sonic identity of the collective has a real chance to establish itself.
First up will be Freerotation Tenerife 2012, which is taking place on the last weekend in September. While the Canary Islands might seem an unlikely destination after Wales, the opportunity has come about through an old friend of Steevio and Suze’s who lives on the island. After years spent talking about it, a site was found and a 24-hour party has been planned, running from the Saturday afternoon to the Sunday afternoon with a pre-party the Thursday before. “It’s starting off modest and we’ll see how it goes,” Steevio explains. “The site’s out in the country, and it’s good for a big party, so if it works out this year we could make it into a proper Freerotation.”
The party will be a collaboration between Freerotation and Mazaribah, a local cultural organisation. As such, the Freerotation-curated acts will be bolstered by some local artists too. “Obviously we had to vet it a little bit,” says Steevio. “We didn’t want just anyone to turn up and play something, so we had a little listen. At the same time we didn’t want to just come steaming in going ‘here’s Freerotation’, we wanted to try and make it a collaboration.”
Keeping up the tendency of the event to choose unconventional locations, the next stop for Freerotation will be Blackpool in December. One Of These Days is being billed as “the festival of festivals”, bringing a wealth of successful leftfield bashes such as Bloc and Primavera together for a weekend in the Winter Gardens complex on the North West coast. Instantly it’s clear this is quite a move for an event such as Freerotation, which has kept itself relatively off the radar over the years, so it wasn’t without negotiation that the collaboration came about.
“I wasn’t going to do it at first, it seemed too far removed from our underground leanings,” says Steevio of the initial proposal. “I sent an email out to all the guys in the collective and everyone wanted to do it, so I talked to the organisers a bit more about our concerns about it being a sponsored event. They’ve been really reasonable the whole time. There wont be any sponsorship signs in our room, so I’ve made sure that it’s Freerotation-friendly before I agreed to do it.”
With just twelve hours to play with at the event, the line-up for the room needs to be kept quite streamlined, and as with Tenerife, most of the artists will be from the collective, providing a platform for them to operate more closely. There will of course be some choice guests included, but the intention is to let the residents do their thing.
As for Steevio’s own musical endeavours, there’s plenty of material ready to be pored over and fashioned into a release, but still his main focus has been developing his modular set up. From its previous appearances at Freerotation, the sheer scale of the machinery made it seem nigh on impossible for a gigging situation, and yet Steevio’s entire approach is geared towards the music being made in the immediate moment.
“Before it was taking me an hour and a half to set everything up,” he says, “but now I’ve bought a multi-core it’s gonna take twenty minutes. I am working towards it being an actual live show.” Due to the fragile nature of the equipment, flying is out of the question for any gigs Steevio and Suze get for their audio-visual show, although opportunities await them across Europe and as far as Japan. However a plan is being hatched to get a van and traverse the continent, once again harking back to Steevio’s earliest musical explorations.
“Some of the best fun I ever had was in the bands,” he recalls. “We chucked the gear in the van and drove around Europe, slept on floors and met loads of people. You tend to get to know people better that way. Sometimes I think the whole flying around, going and staying in a hotel, it’s a little bit unfriendly and cold.”
It’s just another prime example of the independent approach that typifies Steevio’s attitude to what he does. While the music he makes and that he’s most connected with is relatively critical, there’s no air of pretension to be found anywhere. After all you wouldn’t work this hard for it for this long if you weren’t in it for the right reasons.
Words: Oli Warwick
Main image: Tasha Park