Interview with Solarstone
We sat down with Richard Mowatt aka Solarstone to talk a bit more about the new compilation album and also the follow up to the previous one. This is the story of Electronic Architecture 2.
So Richard, we’re talking about an “evolution” here… For you, what’s evolved with Electronic Architecture since the first compilation two years ago?
The evolution in the strictest sense is the enhancement of how the EA series is presented to the listener. With EA2 we brought in the interactive website which gives people the opportunity to de-construct and reassemble the album’s artwork in their own bespoke design. The in-club visuals have been ramped up in terms of their visual impact; the online trailer for EA2 is bigger & more powerful giving a clearer insight into the music on the album. As for the music itself, I underwent a solid 6 month A&R marathon to discover the brightest producer stars of the future from across the world, in a more determined fashion than with EA1. I guess with an album like EA1 to live up to I felt the pressure was on to deliver something exemplary with No. 2.
The series is now clearly defined as Music vs. Art. What drove you towards that concept in the first instance?
For too long artists and labels have shovelled out the direst compilation fodder imaginable. When dance music was in what many would consider its zenith (in terms of sales at any rate) artists and labels put far more time and artistic thought into the packaging of their releases. Labels such as Renaissance were in fact proud of the aesthetic qualities of their releases. I felt even though the financial rewards may not be so great from sales in the current climate, the marriage of brilliant music and beautiful artwork should be an integral element of releasing an inventive compilation album. I wanted the EA series to shine like a star of hope to lovers of aesthetically pleasing releases.
Who are some of your favourite artists and what specifically appeals to you about them?
Electronically, one of my favourites is currently Konektiv, a producer I signed to my experimental label Molecule. His music is progressive house meets trance with a warped twist in it. It’s inventive and unexpected elements are a breath of fresh air in a largely formulaic scene. Another one is Nick Stoynoff; his production has all the qualities of early G.U releases, expansive and intricate without becoming beard-stroking. On the non-edm tip I love Hurts – they remind me of one of my favourite bands Pet Shop Boys at their most stylish.
The cover art of Electronic Architecture² is very imagination-inducing and evocative. What do you see and think about when you look at it?
I’m not sure really, it’s more about what it suggests than what it actually is. In some ways the curious geometric shapes represent the musical pieces of the grand structure of the music on the albums, the way they slot together in complex ways. But it’s probably more abstract than that. In fact that is probably what I like so much about the styling of the EA series, the abstract nature of the images used on the sleeves and in the visuals; it’s open to interpretation really.
Your stated intention with EA² has always been to kick back against the throwaway nature of the modern day compilation album. Do you think you’ve achieved that and if so how?
I do. Sometimes I think that many labels don’t treat their fans as sophisticated listeners, I’m 100% convinced that making an aesthetically beautiful package in addition to the fabulous well-thought out music is a fight back against the illegal downloading problem. Part of the reason people dislike downloads is because they are not ‘tangible’ – the EA series is the opposite. Even with the download version of the album we include a stunning digital booklet for the listener to peruse while the music is playing.
The first compilation sold very well, over a sustained period of time (something that’s very rare these days) and exceeded your expectations. It was also nominated for an IDMA at the Winter Music Conference last year. How much pressure did you feel really going into ‘Electronic Architecture²’ because of all that?
I felt a certain amount of pressure largely due to the ‘Part 2’ syndrome. In my own experience, when you find something fabulous by an artist such as their first album, you’re less open to accepting the subsequent albums, because you mentally prepare yourself to be disappointed. In the same way when a record by a particular artist is your absolute favourite track, nothing they ever release afterwards can top it, so, to you, that artist is never again ‘at their best’ It’s pure perception. EA1 was so well received that it was going to be difficult to match it. But having said that, as the album is 90% other artist’s music, I saw no reason at all why EA2 could not be as good, if not better. So what I decided to do was detach myself from that pressure and just find the best music that I could from new, exciting artists, and mix it in the best way I knew how. I reckon that if you give 100% you’re going to please more of the people more of the time anyway.
There are a few artists whose first tracks debuted on EA1 returning with ones for ‘EA²’, who’s come back for more?!
Jahawi for one, Kenya’s finest export! I love his style of progressive trance music, understated melodies that pluck the heart strings. Also there’s Majera, from Australia, he pulled another winner out of the bag with ‘Escapade’.
Paradoxically it now feels quite ‘familiar’ to look at the back of an Electronic Architecture album and see a lot of artist’s names we’ve not heard of. Take a cross section of 3 of them and tell us a bit about how you came across them and what attracted you to their music?
I came across Piotro via Dj Mag Poland, he produces this ‘Microprog’ music which totally presses all my buttons, and I struggled not to put more than 2 of his tracks on EA2. He really is a one off and a future production star. Daniel Mahuad also releases as Konektiv on my Molecule label, he is another producer who thinks outside the box, his tracks have unexpected twists & turns that are just wicked. He was another discovery via the ‘Unsigned Track of the Week’ on my Solaris International’ show. I plucked his demo from a big pile and it hit the spot. A 3rd would be Ozo Effy – I have no recollection where I picked up his track from, I think I was randomly browsing myspace or soundcloud pages and there it was in an early format. To discover new music you do have to go a bit out of your way to look for it, just sitting there waiting for amazing demos to come in isn’t going to work, because you can guarantee the artists will have sent their track to 50 other labels. You need to get in there at an earlier stage and be prepared to work with the young artist and give them a helping hand to turn a great idea into a brilliant track.
Again there are a handful of old progressive greats on there too. How important do you think it is to tie the old to the new like this on the albums?
There are many classic tracks out there sitting gathering dust, crying out for exposure to a new generation of listeners via a fresh new remix. Electronic Architecture is the perfect vehicle to try this out. The tracks I pick for the re-rubs are personal favourites of mine from the trance archive.
If you could bring one old progressive classicists out of retirement under his/her/their original guise and in their original form, who would it be?
Eat Static. They changed the way I thought about Trance music, they were incredibly inventive at the time, their best album (in my view) ‘Abduction’ still sounds fantastic today. Modern producers should take note of how expansive their music was – without VST and plug-ins and hundreds of finely tuned soft synth presets. I get sent so much music which is incredibly lazily produced, acts like Eat Static set the standard for attention to detail - there really is no excuse for sloppy production these days with so many tools at your disposal!
Gathering together so many compilation-worthy tracks for exclusive use is a task. In relation to the previous A&R process though, how did you find this one?
Finding the music is really good fun, randomly browsing soundcloud and myspace sites that I wouldn’t ordinarily spent my energy doing for pleasure, there are no genre restrictions with an EA album (within reason) so I sometimes find myself on some bizarre nerdy websites scouring for half finished demos that might just be the next ‘big thing’. I love it!
Were there any major hiccups along the way?
Yeah – a few. I spent ages working on one track in particular with an artist for the album, and then it just didn’t fit with the other tracks at all. In fact there were 3 tracks like that – it’s incredibly frustrating when that happens. But I can still release them as singles in their own right. It’s very disappointing for artists when they receive the ‘sorry but your track hasn’t been used’ email from the office staff, but unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your angle) it’s all about the mix. Even if a track is incredible, I’m not going to force it into the mix for the sake of it. There was a Solarstone track of my own called ‘Fire Island’ that didn’t make it on because it didn’t fit, so it’s one size fits all with that rule.
By all accounts you’ve used some fairly advanced next-level techniques to mix the album together. Tell us a bit about those?
I just treat the mix like I would treat the production of a track. All the same tools are used. It’s totally not a case of intro-to-tail mixing. I request the stems for all the constituent tracks and construct the mix from there… it is a massive exercise but it’s ultimately worth it I think. Re-pitching software is incredibly valuable on an album like this… Electronic Architecture would have been physically impossible 10 years ago. When I mixed ‘Chilled Out Euphoria’ I would have killed to have had the tools then which I now have at my disposal – and that album was hailed as ‘technically brilliant’ at the time. It’s just a matter of utilizing the best tools that are available and not confining myself to the traditional ‘mixing’ tools. Some of the tracks were signed for the album because they were so malleable and understated – one track was signed just because it had a rhythm section at the start that I wanted to use with the break from another track. It’s all about the mix.
‘Big Wheel’ is the new Solarstone track that features exclusively on Electronic Architecture². It has a vocal, the types of which we’ve never heard before. Where does it originate from and how did you go about using it?
I sampled it from an old obscure folk record actually, I heard it on the radio when I was in the car and it struck a chord with me immediately. It’s weird and hypnotic. I sampled lots of instances of the ‘little wheel spin’ line and joined them together with filters and FX... I think it’s wicked. The main melody in the record was based upon a little guitar arpeggio I kept playing over and over again in the studio, it just got into my heard like an ear worm. The rest of the production on the record is very restrained and smooth, there is no snare drum or anything on the 2 or the 4, I remembered that early trance was all about the kick drum and wanted to nod my head to that in some way. I think it works really well, especially with that enormous side chained riff in the break – that sounds huge on a big system.
‘Big Wheel’ also comes with a Solarstone Pres. Smashing Atoms remix. Something new there – how’s that come about and what’s going to define a Smashing Atoms remix?
‘Smashing Atoms’ is my showing my teeth a bit more. I love the deeper progressive side of things, but of recent times the harder, tougher side of my production has been yearning to get out. ‘Smashing Atoms’ was actually an early title for the ‘Touchstone’ album, but as ‘Touchstone’ turned out a more ‘listening at home’ record the Atoms title seemed inappropriate for it. I wanted to flex my muscles a bit more in the studio and do some harder, tougher more kick arse trance for peak time sets, but at a groovy tempo, and I’m really enjoying a return to that side of the Solarstone sound.
Aside from Electronic Architecture² for a moment, you have some big remixes currently out and on the horizon. What have you been working on and after quite a long time away from that particular field, what’s prompted you to come back?
Remixing lost it’s sheen for me after a really long run of remixes in the early 2000’s, I was totally remixed out and preferred to just write my own stuff rather than be on the remix treadmill as I felt towards it at the time. But after a long time away I forgot what is great about remixing great tracks – the artistic freedom you have in that the tricky bit – the hook – has already been written – you just get to do the fun bit which is production. Some artists forget that it is the original riff which is the key. Producers ‘remix’ a classic then play it in a club, and they perceive that when everyone cheers, they are cheering that producer’s remix. They are not. They are cheering the ‘classic’ which they already know! I decided that I wanted to remix again so that I could have the fun of production on other people’s tracks, and it’s also a good profile boosting exercise! The tracks I’ve picked to remix are personal favourites, I’m definitely not interested in remixing any old rubbish just for the money – there has got to be something attractive about the Original idea. Remixing ‘Yeke Yeke’ was a dream come true, and in the past few weeks I’ve remixing ‘Girl Panic’ for Duran Duran, ‘Still for Aly & Fila’ and also done 2 mixes of the new Tiesto pres. Allure record – it’s been fantastic fun and they are all wicked remixes too.
You’ve upped the ante with the Electronic Architect tool on the album’s microsite, tell us about that?
Think I answered that one already in the 1st question!
There’s also a competition related to that, I think?
Yes – The person, who sends in the most inventive, imaginative version of the album’s Art, gets the grand prize, a whole host of Solarstone goodies and their own version of the artwork on a big poster, framed.
Ok, so finally is there still mountains left for the series to climb and if so - given that the second album is evolution – are ready and able to climb them?!
Definitely. I’m eager to get to work on EA3 – but it will have to wait until the next Solarstone artist album is complete, so watch this space!