Politics & Music: Alex Smoke

Glasgow’s Alex Menzies explorative synth and key laden productions, heavily layered with his mutated vocoded voice are deep, dark and pensive. Sedulously emanating the sound of the underground, he has quietly released a steady stream of music under the production guises Alex Smoke and the more linear Wraetlic on the likes of Soma Quality, Vakant & his own Hum + Haw imprint for nigh on fifteen years now.

His tour du force debut album ‘Incommunicado’ exploded onto the scene back in 2005 and despite health issues temporarily slowing things down, its all been building towards his triumphant signing to the legendary R&S Records roster last year. An afternoon spent down the rabbit hole of his collective works is an afternoon well spent by all accounts.

Ahead of his performance alongside Marcel Fengler, Clockwork & Avatism at Village Underground tonight, we spoke to Alex about Scottish independence, moving home and exploring new avenues in sound…

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Hi Alex, thanks for speaking to us. How has your summer been?

Summer’s been great thanks. Had a small holiday in June and since then have been working flat-out on music. I’ve got a new flat and a new studio so it’s much more conducive to creativity. I find I need a separate space at home, rather than a studio somewhere else.

Growing up in Glasgow, how did the city impact the musical tastes you developed?

I was late to the party when it came to clubbing. I loved Techno and electronic music from 15 onwards, but was extremely shy and didn’t like going out until quite a bit later, so the city didn’t start impacting my musical direction until I was maybe 20. I was the guy sitting in my student flat with a cup of tea, while my brother and pals went out to clubs, but when I did get over myself and started going dancing that was it for me. The Sub Club was my place, for Subculture on Saturdays and Optimo on Sundays. Much of what I already liked was from Detroit, though I didn’t know it at the time, and Glasgow also has an underlying musical connection to Detroit which resonated with me. Those DJs, Harri and Domenic first, then Twitch and Wilkes later as my tastes broadened, were very influential for me, and still are.

‘Incommunicado’ came out nearly ten years ago. How has your approach to music writing changed over the years?

In those days there was an innocence to the way I approached music making, which is hard to hold on to as you get better at the technical aspects, and more weighed down with expectations. I just used to fire out the ideas, finishing maybe three or four songs in a day and not do too much more to them. Then I’d just pick the best ones for the album or singles. I still use essentially the same process but now I care much more about the sound design and the process, switching between kyma, logic, synths etc. In those days it was purely software. In recent years I’ve started to get back to the way it was in terms of flow, provided there is no expectation for this or that style, and I can just let it out and see what comes…

Do you find it easy to separate ideas between aliases? Is one element specifically ‘Alex Smoke’ or ‘Wraetlic’?

In my head Wraetlic is a much more clearly delineated style, consisting of short songs, whereas Alex Smoke was never delineated as anything particularly so can be any style, including short songs….hahah….basically I know when I am working on Wraetlic, and everything else is AS. I have sometimes struggled with the expectations for AS to sound a particular way and that is creative kryptonite for me. I have to detach my conscious thought for it to be good.

Do you have any plans to release music under any different names in the future?

Wraetlic went well for me and I liked having that detachment from the Alex Smoke past. It felt like a clean start. So yes I reckon I’ll be exploring some other musical avenues under other names, even if Alex Smoke remains my main identity.

Your label Hum+Haw was very busy for a couple of years. What was the reason for starting it and will there be more releases on the label?

Ah, the label. Well, there are people in this world who love running labels and plotting campaigns, and I am not one of them. For me it was a chance to release music as it came out without having to worry about label expectations, and it was about working with a friend who wanted to run his own label. But I just underestimated how much of a shit I didn’t give about promoting a label and doing all the other stuff that comes with a business. I hate business. We released some music that I’m proud of, but we sold hee-haw and it became unsupportable. It was actually a massive relief just to pay it all off and close it. I much prefer having a label release my music for me so I can focus on the purely creative aspects.

Next week you play Superstition in London, with Marcel Fengler, Clockwork & Avatism. The following fortnight you are playing at an R&S showcase in Manchester with Lone and Synkro. Will you be approaching your sets for those nights very differently?

The London show is going to be an early run on my new A/V live show, taking ideas from the Wraetlic show and again utilising the talents of my man Vokoi in Japan. He’s having a few teething issues with the new patches so hopefully we’ll be fully up and running by then! Musically I’m heading in the more hardware direction again, but I need to still buy a few bits of gear before calling it the full new live show. The R&S showcase in Manchester shall be a chance for me to break out the records as I’m DJing……something I’d like to do more of again.

How did you get involved with R&S? Have you been a long term fan of the label?

R&S….what can you say? It’s a legendary label. I’ve got loads of old R&S records and plenty of new ones too……a very rare thing for a label to be able to manage. I met Andy, the label manager, through friends and then smashed them with demos until they signed me. My modus operandi. It’s nice having my music taken care of by professionals again after doing it myself, and Ren, the owner, is a refreshingly original human being.

You recently wrote a piece on why you were voting YES to an independent Scotland, do political feelings ever affect your music writing?

Politics is the thing I end up writing about most when composing lyrics. It’s something I think about a lot even though part of me wants to just rise above it. But I can’t, because the iniquities of the modern world are so glaring that we have to speak up to condemn them. As a species we are very clever but almost entirely devoid of wisdom it seems.

If Scotland does become independent, do you foresee it having an impact on the music scene over there?

Glasgow is a very YES leaning city it seems, and it’s interesting because I think that much of that is down to its confidence in itself after the last few years of creative success. It’s had Turner prize winners, and an even more thriving music scene than usual and I think that this has fuelled some self-belief. I think it will also work the other way too, and if Scotland becomes independent then it will give rise to a new period of heightened creativity throughout the country that comes from having a bit of belief in what you’re doing.

And finally, what are your plans for the rest of 2014 – musically and personally?

The music is tipping out of my skull at the moment so there’s a Wraetlic LP finished and an AS one on the way too. I’m also working on some new large-scale installation projects with my visual cohort Florence To, and pursuing my other favourite things, music for film and composition. The pleasure of creating.

Alex Smoke plays Superstition at Village Underground tonight, more info & tickets here

Jonathan Kambskard Bennett