Interview: Forward Strategy Group

It’s rare that collaborations of this nature produce such significant results.  When it happens, it’s extremely hard not to take notice, and indeed it’s something to be thoroughly appreciated.  Forward Strategy Group is a successful coalescence of talent and personality between Al Matthews, and Patrick Walker.  From their vantage point at Perc Trax, Forward Strategy Group stands poised to unleash their debut album ‘Labour Division’ upon the world.  It’s a momentous foray into the raw emotive innards of techno, effortlessly raising the bar for those who seek to follow. — PD

Labor Division as an album really spans a vast spectrum of sound, being both melodic at certain times and hitting fast and heavy with percussive elements at others.  Was there a particular aesthetic or idea that you wanted to convey in the album?

Al:  From my end there were quite a few things in mind, mainly with the range and structure. I was quite keen on it being put together in a similar way to old pop 45s, Brian Eno’s early albums and the like, the ‘big’ tracks in the first half of the album, and the more glacial, introspective, or oblique music in the second half. The aesthetic is essentially an extension of what we’ve been developing over the past few years. The big difference was having the room to play it all out at a different pace. Also listening to an album is a different experience to say, an EP; you’d be inclined to play one track and move on, whereas putting an album on is a bit more of a commitment. As a result you can go off on tangents, impose sudden shifts in mood, all the things that are more difficult in a release that’s only 10-20 minutes long.

Patrick:  Yeah, the album format is a wonderful thing to explore, for my own part I tried not to think the aesthetic too much, as Al says, most of what we were going for we’d already been working towards for a number of years. Instead of trying to guide the direction too much, I think I paid more attention to the detail, I wanted a very visceral sound and I knew that we’d need to expand our palette a little – try things we hadn’t before. Other than that I wanted to treat sounds and elements as real objects rather than generated audio, as if it had all been struck, plucked or played in the real world and then recorded onto tape.

I liked reading in your interview with Klubd that part of the reason you started FSG was because “Patrick and I had some tracks that we thought were too good to give to anyone else!”  You’ve also mentioned that it’s often easier to release on other labels logistically and financially Are you holding on to anything too good to give away that we can expect to see being released directly from FSG in the near future?

Al:  It was music we thought was good, but couldn’t see working on someone else’s label, therefore it was best that we do it ourselves. Perc Trax is now fulfilling that need though. It doesn’t feel like we’re on someone else’s label at all. Perc releases artists he finds interesting and has faith in, rather than just people who fit a narrow ideal. So we have pretty much the freedom that we would on our own label, so there’s no immediate plans for FSG 003 just yet.

Patrick:  Exactly, when we started thinking about FSG, we didn’t particularly think our ideas had much of a commercial concern and frankly, a lot of people in the techno scene were either moaning a lot about how crap everything was, or they were all going on about how putting out vinyl was commercial suicide. It was quite a funny time as I think a lot of people were either bailing out or they seemed to be more concerned about staying afloat than what was good / bad / different. It almost felt like a lot of things had ran their course and people needed to rediscover what they had liked about techno in the first place. That being the case, since then; a lot has changed and right now, I don’t think we could devote enough quality time to running a label that would be worthwhile, plenty of people have picked up the slack and techno is more vibrant than ever, we’ll probably kick off FSG again when everyone’s fed up with it again 😉

I can sit quietly through most political debates, but when I hear somebody say ‘Digital vs. Vinyl’ I start moving towards the door before knives come out.  You guys were releasing a lot of material on netlabels for a while, coming from what some may consider ‘humble origins’ what was it like trying to break into the non-digital community?  Was there much adversity or would you say it took more effort to get the attention of other labels?

Patrick:  There was definitely adversity, a lot of strange attitudes to deal with and fairly pointless criticism from people who would rather talk about format and not whether the music was any good or not. I can’t actually remember one negative criticism about any of the music we released in that time, I just remember people being a bit dismissive of the format.  As far as getting attention of labels – I don’t think Al or I have ever had any desire to do that, we’ve always just enjoyed making & listening to strange music.

Al:  It’s never been a case of conceding to a ‘lesser’ format for me. I did a few releases on vinyl before I started producing techno, and had vinyl offers within about a month of producing as Smear. Releasing on the netlabels were right at the time, the first one was on Patrick’s label, and we’ve worked together ever since. There was a bit of a kick-up when Richie Hawtin slagged someone off for playing vinyl, and as much as I love vinyl, it’s good there’s some format snobbery in the other direction.

A lot of DJ’s claim their ‘hometown’ heavily shaped their sound, but techno as a genre is extremely globalized these days.  Coming from the Northern UK, do you feel as though it’s helped shape your sound, and do you think it offers something unique that can’t be found in other places?

Patrick:  It’s definitely shaped my sound. My earliest memory of wanting to make electronic stuff was watching Neil Landstrumm & Tobias Schmidt playing live at a friend’s birthday party before they rose to global infamy. I guess I had a good education being around people like that, I always managed to end up in the background, watching & learning. On that level it’s delusional of me to think that I didn’t pick up some of the vibe. I can only talk about what was specific to what I saw in regards to techno and that was basically very edgy / street sounding stuff that was essentially Chicago house through a distortion pedal. It had a lot of parallels with hip hop in terms of the attitude being a bit frowny but style-wise was always a bit more dystopian. Of course there were other sounds and styles, but for the main part, while I was cutting my teeth – the sound here was really hard, brash and militant with this funk’d up Chicago or NYC feel to it.

Al:  My earliest memory of wanting to make music was when I was about 8 or 9, when I realized you could make it on a computer. I immediately wanted to do that, even though I had no interest in music at all at the time. A lot of my teenage years were spent listening to noise, experimental hardcore from France and the like, so I guess I had a kind of awkward route into techno. By the time I got into it I already had a pretty solid sense of what I liked and didn’t like, so obviously I leaned towards British Murder Boys, Steve Bicknell, 65D Mavericks, more industrial or abstract stuff. It’s a bit of a cliché to say being from an industrial city influenced me, and I’m not sure how much it applies because our generation never grew up with the shipyards etc. My main inspiration was hating all music as a child!

Perc said you guys have a great sense of humor, but as we all know humor and hilarity are strictly forbidden in techno.  When you guys are producing, discussing ideas, or playing a show, what is the feeling or dynamic in the air for the most part?  Do you try and keep a serious air or would you dare say you have fun?

Patrick:  Yeah, I think we both privately are pretty comical; both of us are best described in our own tongue – sarky bastards. There’s a little bit of absurdity in our music – as far as the album goes, the bits people probably will take the most seriously, are the bits we’ve personally found quite hilarious in some way or another.

Al:  We have fun, we don’t try to look like we’re having fun at shows though. There’s interaction, but we’re not gonna pretend to be showmen. We’re ugly and overweight, and have miserable Scottish faces which nightclub lighting tends not to flatter. That’s what people are paying to see though isn’t it?

Patrick:  See what I mean? Sarky Bastard 😉 He’s right though, we’re not showmen….

Just out of curiosity there is another duo from Edinburgh that’s announced a new album in the works.  I’m of course talking about Boards of Canada. Shot in the dark, are you fans at all? Excited by the news? (I’m a Warp Junkie sorry, had to ask)

Al:  Yeah I’m a huge fan of theirs, it almost goes without saying!

Patrick:  They have left a huge legacy here in Edinburgh and I’m a big fan of a guy who used to do stuff with them called Christ (So the legend goes anyway). There’s a label here which he is involved in called Benbecula which released a lot of stuff like that, it became a bit of a strange breeding ground for all sorts of really interesting stuff. I haven’t followed BOC for a while but I really dig a lot of stuff that came in their wake, in particular it’s worth checking the remix Christ done on US label Anti-con (Alias & Tarsier – Rising Sun) which is very nice indeed.