Q&A: Wagon Christ

Wagon Christ Wagon Christ: Toomorrow (Ninja Tune, 3/07/11)

Wagon Christ: “Manalyze This!”

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Electronic producer Luke Vibert is a man of many sounds and aliases. Since the early ’90s, Vibert has recorded under his own name as well as under Wagon Christ, Plug, and several others to accommodate his sheer girth of recorded output.  His brand new release as Wagon Christ, Toomorrow, retraces his funky roots while pasting disparate vocal samples over waving bass lines and hip-hop beats.

Toomorrow is a 15-track collection that demonstrates Vibert’s humorous fusions and reflects the slinky rhythms of his Wagon Christ alias.  Here Vibert discusses the making of his newest record, the truth behind live electronic music, and how technological innovations have affected his material.

Your first record, Phat Lab Nightmare, was based on a lie, but you eventually got your foot in the door with Rising High. Do you think your approach to music would have been different had you not started with an impromptu ambient record?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked before. Yeah, I’m sure it would have been, probably. I have to recover, in a way, from that album. At the time, I think if I could have made anything, if I could have been totally free and making anything, I would have probably made very similar stuff to now. Like more funky break beats, and not so obviously ambient. But I sort of forced myself to try and make ambient music, and actually really enjoyed it. So then, slowly, that influenced the rest of my tracks. After a few years, I kept coming back to the album and thinking, “Actually, I quite like that.” So yeah, it definitely changed me for some reason, but it’s hard to think of how because it was so long ago.

Wagon Christ came about in the mid-’90s. How has the evolution of house and the abundance of new musical influences changed or affected Wagon Christ’s material?

It’s funny — I think, in a way, that it makes me more try to find my own sound and stick to that. I’ve had lots of people tell me, “Oh, man, your sound is quite dated, and the tracks sound very ’90s, and some people — kind of friends, really, all people I meet in clubs — often say, “Don’t you like dubstep?” (or some new thing), and I say, “Yeah — yeah, I do.” But I don’t really want to make it. I just want to find my own thing that I like doing.

Especially now that I’ve got kids and more work to do — like looking after them, and then more gigs that I have because the records don’t make so much money — I’m always off traveling around, touring. So I think when I do come to make music now, I just kind of really want to be me and forget about all new music. I don’t take much influence, really, from all the millions of new styles that have developed over the years. My stuff still sounds pretty old and basic.

Moving to your newly released Toomorrow, what would you say goes into something being considered a Wagon Christ song?

In a way, it’s kind of up to the record label. It’s more the label that it reflects, like the first Rising High label. They really wanted more ambient techno stuff, and I just wanted to release a record. So I was happy to slightly alter my style to try and make them like it and release it. Then Virgin, finally enough, they didn’t tell me anything to do at all stylistically. So I think that was the first Wagon Christ album — which was called Tally Ho! — that was the first one that I just did exactly what I wanted to do. That kind of carried on into Ninja Tune, except there are some things that they don’t really like. They don’t like acid much, so I can’t get so many weirder, acid-y tracks in there. So it just kind of reflects a bit of a compromise, I suppose, between me and Ninja Tune. And they’re not so into anything fast or crazy, so it’s more kind of a fun-listening style.

Toomorrow is layered with several different, almost contrasting, vocal samples. How do you fuse them all together in a humorous manner, yet still maintain a sense of sincerity throughout the album?

Yeah, some people really don’t like that — and even me, sometimes, I think I’m quite hard on myself. But I think it’s mainly because there’s not a lead thing in the track, a main thing like a vocal or a guitar solo or whatever that may be. So I obviously spent so long making the music anyway, suddenly I think this is kind of empty; it’s just drums and chords. So I think, “Shit, I need to put things on top of it.” Then I get in a different mood and think, “No, you don’t; you’ve kind of ruined it now with all these stupid vocals,” but I just can’t help myself. Sometimes I also think it’s because the music is kind of serious, but then when I put the vocals on top, it kind of lightens it up a lot, which I like. I like to make things not funny, but just a bit more fun or silly to listen to.

A lot of the vocals on this one are from my kids, which is good. Not the speaking ones so much, but the silly noises when they were babies. That feels better. But I don’t know where that comes from, really. Maybe hip hop, I suppose, because I used to love hip hop so much that I feel that the tracks are a bit empty when there’s no vocals. I don’t want to work with rappers because I’ve tried a few times. I can never do the music I want, really. Plus, the rappers rapping — it sounds like there’s too much music going on. But it’s kind of a compromise again, between not having vocals and having them.

As a whole, Toomorrow sounds less acid yet more groovy and psychedelic than your previous efforts. Did you have a different goal with this record opposed to Sorry I Make You Lush?

I think it was just good timing for me because some of those tracks are old, but I just remixed them. I think the oldest is like five or six years old. But I was just going through all of the tracks I like that I’d done in the past years when I got an E-mail from Ninja saying, “Do you want to do another album? Have you got enough tracks ready?” I thought, “Oh, yeah! Good timing.” So I was just literally putting all of the tracks together that I like best, and we compromised a few times. They’d say things like, “Oh, we need one more mid-tempo track” or something, and slowly we got a collection of tracks that we liked. And then I remixed them a bit so that they sounded happier together, because some were much louder or a bit more harsh-sounding than other ones. I tried to make it all sound like an album, but actually it was just a collection of my favorite tracks that I’d done in the last few years. I’m kind of lucky in that way, that I get an outlet for all my stuff. I just have to compile the albums with the label.

There are obvious benefits to the computer-based music that you produce, but can you think of any drawbacks to technologically dependent music?

I used to have a big hardware studio with all of the samplers and keyboards and everything that now you can get easily on your laptop. And I do that now. I just work on my laptop because I travel a lot and it’s easier. But I’m trying to convince myself to get more of an old-school studio again. I have to work so hard just to make it sound even okay; it just doesn’t sound as good as having hardware. Even though all of the computer programmers swear that it’s just as good as having a real drum machine or a real keyboard, it never quite is, really. And the more you add together, it kind of starts to sound a bit muddy. So it’s tough.

In a way, it was easier 10 or 15 years ago; even though I had a much bigger load of stuff that I had to make work together, it was nicer results. Technology moving forward is not always best for the music. It’s a lot easier to make, but I feel sorry for younger kids who’ve never played with the real hardware. It’s just so much better; it’s kind of more intuitive playing with sliders and knobs than always looking at the computer screen, which just gives me a headache. After 10 hours of hard work, I start to feel sick. Whereas with the knobs, sliders, and pieces with actual kick, it’s a lot more fun and more musical.

What is your response to people who say that electronic/house music is “pressing the spacebar”? Can you explain your preparation for live shows?

I’m definitely more on their side than the people who say it’s really hard to do electronic live. But if you just have a computer, definitely, I think it’s a bit of a cheat. And if you say you’re doing live stuff — I never say I’m doing live. I’ve never done a live gig. Occasionally, naughty promoters put it in the flier, and even though in my contracts I say that I have to be billed as “DJ set,” they still sometimes put “live set”! But it’s not true. I’ve never played live because I don’t think you can play live electronic music. It’s just all stuff running on your computer, and nothing can really go wrong except that it can crash, maybe.

Unless you’re like some of the other people who actually bring out every synthesizer and drum machine and bring out their whole studio into the club…that stuff is expensive to buy, all the old synthesizers these days. So I don’t want to break mine by taking them out. I just think deejaying is best for me. You can really fuck up the tracks with some of the modern DJ programs, so that’s pretty wicked. I just enjoy playing whatever I feel like. I would hate to have to do a live set where it’s all pre-programmed.

I just have thousands of tracks on my hard drive, and I choose whatever I want to play. The program’s pretty good, so you can really change them around a bit, rearrange them, and almost remix them live. [You can] jump around between the tracks, loop up little bits, and change the loop links — all kind of small things you can do, which makes it a lot more live. I like to DJ because I don’t like playing my own stuff that much.

What is the projected number of aliases that you’ll have by the time you’re finished making music? In other words, is your style still evolving/changing enough to need more names?

It’s not usually the style so much. It can be, but it’s usually…when I want to do something else, I have to come up with another name. Like Plug, in the past, or the ones on Rephlex; I couldn’t be Luke Vibert, so I had to be Amen Andrews or Kerrier District. But it’s not usually so much the music for me. I’d be happy to just call myself Luke Vibert and put out all of my music, but it would be too much for one label (or even two or three labels) because they only really want to do one record a year with someone like me, and I can’t wait that long. I want to do at least two or three albums a year. So that’s the main reason that I just make so many songs. But I would actually like it to be all mixed up, from hip hop to drum-and-bass to disco. I’m happy to listen to all of it, but not many people are, unfortunately.

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