Tommy Four Seven and longtime collaborator Alain shed light on the making of their debut album as These Hidden Hands.
The partnership began in 2005 whilst they were studying Music Technology at the London College of Music (now the University of West London). Tommy was already both producing and DJing; playing everything from acid to electro and breakbeat in his sets, but writing relatively straight-edged house music. Alain was in a math rock band, and making drum and bass. They both quickly took note of each other’s influence during this period, Tommy introducing Alain to writing techno and Alain versing him back in less electronic-orientated music. By their final year, all this had led to a record label, Shooting Elvis, and a joint release to inaugurate it, ‘Strix’. “We came up with a nickname for what we were making, ‘Sixties Techno’, because it was organic and made from band instruments.”
Uninspired by life in London, they both re-located to Berlin in 2009. Soon after, Tommy was rubbing shoulders with some of the city’s Techno elite, signing tracks to Chris Liebing’s CLR (and collaborating with Liebing as Bauhaus) and Speedy J’s Electric Deluxe. He has since become a core member of the CLR family, releasing his debut album Primate and touring the world with their artists. Alain now runs the renowned One Million Mangos mastering and recording studio in South Neukölln, working with a diverse range of artists, from Ariel Pink to Adam X. Although without a solo release since Shooting Elvis’ days, when he traded as James Kronier, Alain’s production aside from These Hidden Hands never stopped, “Tom’s obviously been releasing a lot of music, but behind the scenes we’ve both always been making experimental music that we never really had a platform to release. Hence Hidden Hundred.”
Hidden Hundred is the label arm of their project. It recently issued the single ‘Ivy’ (with Vatican Shadow and Lakker remixes), and now the full album. “It’s been four-and-a-half years in the making. We came to Berlin knowing few people, tried to find somewhere to live, ended up in a hostel for what seemed like ever during an extreme winter, and eventually found apartments and built studios. There was a lot we had to do before writing the album, and that definitely shaped its sound”. Once everything was in place the process started, but with no concept of where it was meant to end. They would work in their separate studios, exchanging beats and half-finished tracks until there was something worth finishing.
Unlike T47’s ‘Primate’, ‘These Hidden Hands’ doesn’t just rely on recorded sounds. Alain’s modular synth became a key tool, and garnered a move away from the almost incessant dread (bar ‘Verge’) of that album, towards moments of somewhat surprising brightness. Tommy explains “we just used what we had around us. Alain plays drums so we generated a lot of sounds from his kit. There’s not one single VST instrument on the album, instead we jammed a lot with stomp boxes, synths and drum machines.”
Though the majority of Techno’s characteristics feature, ‘These Hidden Hands’ is both a barefaced and deliberate swerve from the dancefloor. The sound palette, structure and BPM range, suggest Techno album, but it skirts the genre’s perceived restraints, always favouring something more challenging. Opening track ‘Trelesire’ sets the tone, tunnelling into a brooding darkness that taints each track. The haunting ‘When Told’, distinguished by its deep vocal (sampled from Brittsommar, a Swedish dark folk band, who recorded at One Million Mangos), takes quite a different route but with similarly ominous effect.
‘Diesel’ hints at the sonic intensity of Dadub’s ‘You Are Eternity’, and is later balanced by the transitory ambience of ‘Mollusk’, ‘Kheium’ and ‘Hidden’, saving the album from tipping too far from home-listening. It is certainly an acquired taste, particularly given the violent distortion of ‘Severed’ and ‘Isopod’; asked if they think the album is ‘nice’ to listen to, “perhaps not, there are a lot of sounds people aren’t normally comfortable with. We like pushing the envelope in that direction, but at the same time we tried to include a broad palette of tonal colours.”
This aversion to pleasant-sounding music is nothing new. Laughing, they recount when “[they] would go into separate rooms and whoever could come up with the most disgusting sound won”. It seeped into the grainy bassline of ‘Strix’ and electric atmosphere of ‘Wraith’ (that Shooting Elvis 12″s B-side), and, with experience, has been refined to lean on the limits of what people will listen to with remarkable vigour.
‘Ivy’ and ‘Laika’ are the clearest nods to their early influences. They both have the ethereal synths and lucid rhythms of classic electronica, and, in lesser amounts, the sporadic frenzy of jungle and drum & bass. The themes of nature suggested by ‘Ivy”s title are present in both tracks’ breathing melodies and restless texture, à la Boards of Canada. Nature within an otherwise industrial soundscape will also form the basis for the album’s teaser video.
The video is a layered insight into their vision for the music, set to ‘Diesel’. Heleen Blanken, who is also responsible for the visuals of Ben Klock and Jeff Mills’ shows, distilled 45 minutes’ of subtle and not-so-subtle motifs and statements into under a minute of powerful imagery. “She gets the sparseness of the music and plays with mystery, there’s even hidden elements buried in there.” Blanken planted trees in the video set to convey the nature concept, something the pair are adamant runs throughout the album, not just in ‘Ivy’. The final, visual pieces of the jigsaw were then the artwork and label logo, designed by an un-named friend and well-known member of Berlin’s experimental techno scene.
Alain wasn’t originally going to master the record himself, believing “it’s useless if you’ve been listening to the album on repeat, even just for a few days, you’re too used to it to make decisions”. But by the time they had finished recording, they we’re so busy getting the ball rolling with Hidden Hundred, he had spent six weeks without listening to it at all, enough of a gap for his ears to be more objective. With this came a gratifying side-effect: “it’s nice to know we’ve had complete control, 100% homegrown, from the hand-stamped vinyl, to release and post-production”.
‘These Hidden Hands’ will be released on September 26 via Hidden Hundred.