Subway released their terrific sophomore album last week via Soul Jazz Records. The follow-up to Empty Head, their debut for Sunday Best, Subway II finds the London-based duo of Michael Kirkman and Alan James further exploring their vision of “post-dance” music, drawing on influences from the worlds of 70s krautrock, Detroit techno and European disco.
The mix that Subway have recorded for FACT, the 59th in our ongoing series, is an enlightening thumb through electronic music’s back pages, and features tracks from acts as diverse as Black Dice, Ash Ra Tempel, Stereolab and Basic Channel, not to mention an edit of a previously unreleased Subway track, ‘Theera’. Download the mix below, and scroll further down for a Q&A in which Mick tells us more about both the mix and Subway II.
Space Machine – UntitledKK Null – N-02Black Dice – Night FlightAsh Ra Tempel – Ocean Of Tenderness/SunrainSubway – MonochromeSyn – TAT 93Wolf Eyes – Ancient DelayKraftwerk – AtemThrobbing Gristle – Dream MachineStereolab/Nurse With Wound – Trippin’ With The BirdsChris Carter – CloudsSubway – TheeraSubway – Delta IIKraftwerk – AirwavesTangerine Dream – Madrigal MeridianThrobbing Gristle – AB/7ACluster – Heisse LippenSubway – Simplex (Gatto Fritto Mix)Harmonia – Notre DameBasic Channel – MutismCluster – Fotschi-TongKraftwerk – NewsConrad Schnitzler – Ballet StatiqueAsh Ra Tempel – Lotus Part 1Sunroof – Silver Zero
Tell us about the origins of Subway. How did you meet and what led to you working together?
“We used to work together in a record shop, so that was where we first met. Alan had a basic studio setup at home and would sometimes bring music in to play on the shop system. We’d always got on pretty well and had similar music tastes, so we started making tunes together. Over time we gradually began to take it more seriously and pooled our resources to build up the studio.”
What music did you really bond over?
“We were both into the early hardcore/rave scene, but by the time we met in the mid-late 90s our tastes had diversified a bit. One of us had moved towards house and disco, the other more to the techno and drum and bass side of things, but we had common ground in Detroit techno and other deep electronic stuff – artists like Carl Craig, Basic Channel, Ron Trent.”
How – if at all – has the sound, dynamic and aim of Subway changed since you first started out? What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
“When we started we didn’t have any particular aim other than to release records. Stylistically we’ve always been fairly diverse – our first record happened to be a disco/funk cut-up EP but we were also working on Detroit-style electro/techno, downtempo and more glitchy stuff at the time. We were just playing around really and it wasn’t until we’d had two or three releases that we started thinking seriously about trying to settle on a ‘sound’. Initially we went with our Detroit influences, but by the time we started work on our first album in about 2004 we had started developing the more Krautrock-influenced sound that we have today. Looking back I suppose there are loads of things that would have made life easier had we known them at the time – mainly dull, technical, production-related stuff. Knowing a bit more about monitoring and room acoustics would probably have saved us a fair bit of time and frustration…In terms of our sound and how we work together though, I think that has just developed over time and there’s probably not much we could have done to change or speed up the process.”
Obviously the sound of the album is inspired by a wide range of electronic music, from kosmische to techno and so on. But was there anything in particular that you were listening to a lot during the making of the album? Does anything stand out as a conscious influence on this particular album?
“Over the last few years we’ve become increasingly fascinated by ‘pre-techno’ underground electronic music from the 70s and 80s – UK industrial/electronic stuff like Throbbing Gristle, German bands like Cluster, Kraftwerk, Ash Ra Tempel etc, some of the more leftfield Munich/Italo/New York Disco stuff – so I guess if you were to narrow it down then the album is a kind of semi-conscious amalgamation of those influences. That said, it would be misleading to say that we were mainly listening to those particular styles of music for the entire time we were doing the album – between us we listen to all kinds of stuff, most of which doesn’t show through in our music at all.
“In truth, the main factor in how the album turned out is that we had both started to move on from our 15 year obsession with contemporary electronic dance music. We were trying to find a way to adapt stylistically to reflect our changing tastes, while maintaining some continuity with our previous output.”
Do you work on parts separately and then bring them together, or is the production process collaborative from beginning to end? Tell us a bit about your working methods…
“There’s no fixed process, it’s just a case of whatever works really – we’ve always done stuff independently as well as together. During the writing of the album the studio was set up in a spare room at Alan’s house, and we would get together three days a week recording stuff, arguing over ideas and thrashing out arrangements. Most of the album came out of these sessions.
“Things have changed a bit since then as Alan of us has moved to Australia, so nowadays we have to work on ideas individually and swap files online. Sometimes we’ll present finished tunes to each other, other times we’ll each write a few parts and one of us will do the arrangement and mixdown, occasionally we’ll both do versions of a track and come to a consensus. By this stage we have a good understanding of what we’re looking for so it’s actually quite a straightforward process and in many ways it’s proved more productive this way. When you’re both in the same room there can be a tendency to over-analyse and get bogged down in minor details.”
There’s a real warmth to your production. Are you analogue junkies? Can you tell us a bit about your approach to production equipment-wise?
“Most of the album was done on the analogue gear that we’ve accumulated over the years. There are pro and cons with both analogue/outboard gear and software and we use both in the course of our production, but that fullness and warmth was integral to what we wanted to achieve with the album and you can’t really get that sound with soft-synths. Neither of us like the crushed “ball of sound” you can get in a lot of new music. We wanted a dynamic and open sound, even if it means your music isn’t as hard-hitting.
“In fact, with this album we really tried to extend that organic feel to the writing and production process itself – much of the playing was done by hand in order to keep the timing loose and natural and the tracks were largely written by ‘jamming’ – recording extended periods of improvisation on the synths and editing them into shape rather than the more conventional approach of deliberately programming/sequencing individual lines and sounds.”
You’ve talked about Subway II as being “post-dance” music. Can you explain a bit more what you mean by this?
“Stuart from Soul Jazz coined that phrase. It’s a reflection of our own
ndset really – we were both obsessed with contemporary electronic dance music for years, but recently we’ve found ourselves drifting away from it a bit – certainly in terms of wanting to produce it. I suppose it’s natural for tastes to change as time moves on.
“We felt that we could still make music that reflected what we liked, but to do that we would have to give up trying to compete for peak-time on the dancefloor (not that much of our stuff was ever really that way inclined). What we’ve tried to do instead is reinterpret and recontextualise some of the things that hooked us into dance music in the first place – the hypnotic, repetitive sequences, the subtle shifts, the dynamism, the sound of the machines. We try to make music that embraces dance music as an important influence, but does not necessarily have to function as dance music to justify its existence. I guess that’s what we mean by ‘post-dance’, if that’s not being too pretentious…”
Subway II is out now out on Soul Jazz records.