A Talk with Spooky: British Dance Innovators Hit King King This Weekend
In the early 1990s, Spooky helped launch and define the super-club sound that still resonates across the world today. The style of British duo Duncan Forbes and Charlie May was called progressive house not for its stadium-rock aspirations, but because it appeared to carry forward the post-disco spirit with a digital, postmodern imagination. And while "prog" might not be the term attached to the flavor du jour - techno and tech-house seem to rule the big rooms today - the Spooky formula of pairing rubbery American house beats with techno futurism resounds no matter what you call it.
The duo first synthesized that alchemy for the ages with 1993's momentous Gargantuan, a long-player that helped open the decade to masterful electronic pop from the likes of Underworld and Leftfield. The pair continued to define sublime dance music with 2007's Open. In between, May forged a studio partnership with one of the world's most popular superstar DJs, Sasha, carrying the Spooky aesthetic into the new millennium with groundbreaking mix-albums such as the spinner's Involver in 2004 and the 2008 follow-up Invol2ver.
Embed for 2007's "Belong:"
While Forbes ended up joining in on a few projects with May and Sasha in recent years, the original Spooky duo is back in the studio and on the decks. The pair is working on new material for a spring, 2010 album, and this summer it released its first mix-CD, Tales of the Unexpected 4, via the Platipus label.
On the eve of a rare Spooky DJ set at King King in Hollywood Friday, we asked Forbes, now 40, about the duo's return to club-land.
LA Weekly: What brings you to L.A. - promoting your Platipus mix?
Forbes: Yeah, that's the general idea. It came out mid-July, so it's a good time to be out and about. We actually had a gig in Denver in the diary for ages, and so the L.A. gig fit perfectly into a weekend stateside for us.
I never really knew you two as DJs. Is this a new way of representing Spooky? What kind of gear do you use?
I've been DJing for 20 years now and was using only vinyl up until a few years ago. I carried my boxes far and wide over the years. Now when we go out together, we use [performance software] Ableton. It makes sense as we're working with it in the studio during the week. So it becomes kind of second nature to use it in clubs.
I guess this is easier and more profitable than lugging out a live P.A.
Yeah. We used to carry round stacks of analog synths, a mixer, decks, outboard effects, etc. Our excess baggage bill was huge! Having said that, it was great to get out there and perform all our own tracks and literally mix them live on stage. In fact we've been talking about doing this again with the next record for festivals, etc., next summer. But due to the advances in technology, we will be able to do it with pretty much the same set-up that we are doing our DJ sets with -- plus a couple of synths. We will take a [VJ] friend out with us and have a load of film synced up with the show. We have a half hour film for [1996 Spooky album] Found Sound, made by Grant Gee, who went on to work with Radiohead, as well as several other abstract pop promos from earlier stuff from our Guerilla and A&M days. We will be reworking some of the back catalog for these sets to fit in with the sound of the new record live.
How do you two spin together?
We have two computers. I'm basically mixing the tunes, and Charlie has banks of effects, soft synths, drum machines and loops, and we kind of jam together using the DJ mixer as the link. The principals are just the same as with vinyl, except we can just do a lot more.
What have you been up to in-studio? Is there an album in the offing?
Right now we're working on a mix of a new James Zabiela track called 'Tillium.' which we are supposed to deliver this week. We're also working on lots of new Spooky material, and Charlie is chipping away at his own record too. He's just finished a track, which will be coming out soon on his own label. We have a two-tracker ready to go called 'Internebula' backed with 'Outernebula.' We gave it to Renaissance and it should see the light of day in late October. We're doing an album of new Spooky material, which we are writing with clubs and festivals in mind. We intend to tour next year. We're planning on releasing it around the time of WMC [Winter Music Conference, March] 2010.
What kind of studio gear, software or technology is turning you on these days?
We still use a lot of our old analog synths and traditional outboard gear, but we pretty much write everything in Ableton Live now. Live 8 has some great new features and we're loving that. We love all the Arturia stuff as well as Native Instruments gear. Also Sonic Charge's Microtonic and Synplant are two plug-ins we both use all the time. The Access Virus TI has been a mainstay of our set-up, and we used it all over Invol2ver. We still use loads of tape delays and old guitar pedals when we are working and find that a marriage of the analogue and the digital domains works really well.
Are you working on anything forthcoming with Sasha?
Charlie has just been working with him on a new mix for Pole Folder on his La Tour label. Apart from that, we're concentrating on Spooky stuff for the time being.
You, and particularly Charlie, have worked in relative anonymity with Sasha. Do you feel like that's helped or hurt Spooky?
Touring with Sasha enabled us to play venues that we would have been unlikely on fill our own. So we came into contact with many more people, particularly in the U.S. The negative side has been that a lot of people, particularly club promoters who don't know our history, find it hard to distinguish us from the Sasha machine. We started to become part of Sasha's band. We were just his producers rather than an act in our own right. So having done all the Emfire [label] singles and Invol2ver we pretty much gave up a couple of years of our life to promote someone else's brand. Although we were all making the records together, ultimately they had someone else's name on the cover and it would be someone else who would benefit from the gigs that followed.
Spooky is an originator of progressive house. That term has lost some cache lately as techno and tech-house have taken over. But the sound is mostly the same. What are your feelings about the evolution (even if its only etimilogical) of prog?
Well you said it: The sound is the same. It became a dirty word for a while but it was a word that we'd already run a mile from in about 1995 when we changed course and started making more experimental electronica records leading up to our Found Sound LP. This wasn't really a conscious decision. We just totally over-did it: too many club records. It was time for something new. We've never wanted to repeat ourselves. It's always essential to keep things fresh. The scene grew and became more and more commercial, and the music got faster and faster more and more obvious. And the whole euphoric trance sound came out of it. People will always try to pigeonhole things, and genres will come and go, but at the end of the day it's just dance music. It's about a vibe, a feeling. It's music after all - not something to get uptight about just because it doesn't fit into the current trend of 'minimal euphoric prog glitch' or whatever people are calling the latest genre.
How does your feel-good, blue-skies sound fit in with these dark economic times?
Genres come and go, markets go up and down, and fashions pass and return. Everything revolves in cycles. We always just do what we do, and sometimes we take people by surprise. Like when we did Open we released a soulful chill-out record and ended up going out and playing techno sets. But, yeah, people really appreciate being uplifted -- now more than ever. Times of struggle always seem to produce some of the most beautiful music and incredible art. People have to dig deeper in times like these, and what you get is from the heart. I feel some of the best electronic music is being made in over a decade. For us it's great to still be making music, DJing and performing 20 years down the line. We never lose sight of the fact of how lucky we are to do what we do and be able to entertain people.
What's your reaction when you see kids today donning neon, rave-like gear and listening to old-school rave anthems (Robin S.' "Show Me Love")?
You've gotta love it. Long may it last!