Luke Slater Talks Finding Inspiration for New Planetary Assault Systems Album
English techno luminary Luke Slater has released music under more than 10 different names over the course of nearly 25 years. This suggests an easy way with creation: get into the studio, hunker down, pump it out. But according to Slater, he needs specific conditions to fall into place before he starts a new project like Arc Angel, his latest release as Planetary Assault Systems.
"I'm always flying in the headwind," he says over the phone from an appropriately windy park in London. "I'm always looking for that thing to rub up against and create something. I can never create anything if everything's just great."
This has pros and cons. "There's a lot of elements of that which I have to watch out for," Slater acknowledges. In 2002, after a decade of acclaimed techno releases, he took a sudden turn with Alright on Top, a vocal-driven release on the label Mute. "It was a very me thing to do to release an album like that," Slater recalls. "Techno had come to a point where I wanted to rebel against it."
But listeners were not particularly interested in his brand of mutiny. "I thought it would be easily accepted with all the fans, and it wasn't," Slater remembers. "If I looked at it now, I'd just take the album, and take off the vocals and do something new with the music." The aftermath of Alright On Top coincided with some undisclosed personal difficulties, and as a result, Slater's release rate slowed drastically. "I didn't write anything," he says. "The pop world's another world. And I don't think it's a world I feel very comfortable with."
A similar discomfort still motivates him on Arc Angel, the latest in a stream of records he's put out since starting his own label, Mote-Evolver, in 2006, and connecting with Ostgut Ton, the label arm of the Berlin club Berghain, in 2009. "I get fed up with a lot of conservative, mainstream dance music that really isn't saying anything anymore," Slater says. He first encountered this — what he describes as tracks "for the mass corporate crowds" — in the '80s around the start of London rave scene. "I can recognize the signs," Slater asserts, and he positions Arc Angel as a response to those signs: "You gotta go against it."
What are the signs? "I just smell 'em, man. It's like a bad smell."
His goals with the album were more specific: "I think there's a lot of melodious dance tracks," he observed. "But I think the melodies are really boring." The melodies on Arc Angel often rise in gaseous chains, approximating machines powering up in science fiction movies, a feisty set of wind chimes, or a flock of techno-loving birds headed south for the winter. Over the course of nearly '90 minutes, there are six interludes — distant pings through blanket of static at one point, or what sounds like garbled, unintelligible speech at another. The non-interlude tracks stretch out, with kick drums leading the way through fields of softly wheezing electronics.
Slater imposed equipment restrictions in the studio: the record is the result of two synthesizers and two drum machines. "It was something else to go up against," he says. "There is so much of everything. I'm trying to strip away things more and more. I'm trying to offload baggage."
"Message From the Drone Sector," one of the album's most kinetic moments, calls back to an old Planetary Assault Systems record from 1997, The Drone Sector. "[Arc Angel] is a follow on, to a degree, from that album," Slater says. There's another source of potentially inspiring friction here, too, a chance to gently rebuke history: "Interestingly, of all the Planetary albums I did, The Drone Sector was the one that sold the least."
There's also a conceptual link between Arc Angel and that 1997 LP. According to Slater, 1997 was when he "started to nose around in the idea of ambience mixed in with Planetary [Assault Systems] -- in the true sense of what I call ambience, in mood and surreal world thinking." That sort thinking appeals to Slater; on several occasions, he praises the transporting effects of movies made by the British actor/director Terry Gilliam. "I remember walking out the cinema after watching The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and feeling I wasn't a child anymore, but this film had left me in the same world you get left in when you're a child. I knew that in the Arc Angel album, I wanted to try and capture all that -- to take people into a new world, into somewhere that they really haven't heard before."
"It's not just escapism," he adds, looking for the headwind again. "It's escapism and don't come back."