It's one thing to make music in your bedroom, quite another to run a successful record label from it. No wonder Mike Paradinas doesn't get much time to tidy up...
Mike Paradinas may not be a household name, but under his various pseudonyms — which include µ-ziq, Kid Spatula, Jake Slazenger and Tusken Raiders, amongst others — he enjoys an enviable reputation as one of the most consistently inventive dance music producers around. He has released a series of acclaimed albums as µ-ziq for Virgin's Hut and Astralwerks divisions, he's toured with Björk, and his 1993 Tango N' Vectif debut LP is currently scheduled for a re-release by popular demand on Aphex Twin's Rephlex label.
However, it's not only his work as an artist that keeps Mike busy. For the last few years he has been devoting a significant proportion of his time and energy to the running of his own label, Planet Mu Records. Planet Mu started life as an imprint on Virgin, but in 1998 Mike took the plunge and relaunched it as a label in its own right. The label's first fully independent release was the Type Xero EP by Jega (aka Manchester's Dylan Nathan), and this has since been followed by a steady stream of over 30 releases by a variety of different artists. The Cosmic Forces Of Mu compilation, released last September, is a snapshot of the label's varied output, covering two CDs and featuring tracks by artists including Venetian Snares and Leafcutter John (see boxes), Luke Vibert, Jega, and Mike himself, amongst others.
Planet Mu's achievements are all the more impressive when you consider that the whole operation is run single-handedly by Mike, with just a computer and telephone, from a bedroom in his Worcester home.
Looking through the label's back catalogue, it's quite difficult to pin down one style or genre in which Planet Mu has specialised. From the extreme breakbeat 'drill & bass' of Mike himself via Capitol K's unique mixture of lo-fi electronics and lo-fi rock to the electro-acoustic ambience of Leafcutter John, Planet Mu is nothing if not eclectic. Mike sums up the A&R policy that has led him to assemble such a diverse roster of talent: "It's just... things I like."
"If you want to run a label," he continues, "there are basically two ways of doing it. You can either put out whatever you like, or you can set out to have 'a sound', which is what a lot of dance labels do. A hard house label for example: it's pretty self-explanatory what they do."
A label that limits its output to a recognised genre, particularly a popular one, arguably has the advantage of tapping into a known market for its releases. Does Planet Mu's eclecticism therefore bring a financial cost? "Well, my accountant said I was too idealistic," says Mike. "He wanted me to be more business-minded when picking the artists, but that's not the way I work. I don't listen to music and think 'That's not going to sell, I won't release it.' I just enjoy listening to demos and talking to artists."
It's difficult to describe my reaction the first time I heard Venetian Snares' Songs About My Cats LP without lapsing into unprintable profanity. Words such as 'startled' and 'disturbed' don't quite capture the odd mixture of fear and simultaneous amusement inspired by the blisteringly fast, mind-bendingly complex and subversively experimental music of Canada's Aaron Funk (his real name). Perhaps what makes Venetian Snares' output so alarming is its sheer innovation: this is music that resolutely defies categorisation, or even comparison. One might suggest that the high-octane, up-tempo rhythm programming owes a debt to Tom 'Squarepusher' Jenkinson, or some parts of Aphex Twin's repertoire, but these would be lazy comparisons. Venetian Snares' music really doesn't sound like anything you've heard before, and Aaron's own description of it as "genetically enhanced hyper-speed jazzcore, in inhuman time signatures" seems as good as any.
A consistent feature of the Venetian Snares sound is a delight in incredibly elaborate and detailed programming, which seems to go well beyond the point of normal, healthy obsession. Is putting together a track a time-consuming process for Aaron, or does it come easily to him?
"Well, it can be a very time-consuming process, but it does come easily to me, so I don't notice the time at all while I'm at it," he says. "I love the process — I could be there perfecting 30 seconds of music for seven hours, but my perception of time almost comes to a standstill until I get the result I'm after. It's like an infinite moment, and I think the pace of my music lends itself to slowing down time in general — so many movements and sounds can happen in two seconds that it tricks the mind."
As his chosen pseudonym suggests, drum programming is central to what Aaron does. At times, however, the production is so extreme that it can be difficult to isolate exactly which sounds among the exhilarating showers of electronic shrapnel are the drums — and yet, paradoxically, many of the patterns and phrases retain a "natural" phrasing or swing that you'd normally associate with sampled breakbeat loops. So what's going on?
"Well, yes, in a way they are breakbeats. I'm just not using traditional drum sounds a lot of the time. I prefer to create my own drum sounds from scratch. A lot of the time I'll take a breakbeat, originally played by a drummer on a traditional kit, and replace all the drum hits with my own sounds, then chop that up and construct the beats from that.
"One method is to open the breakbeat in Sound Forge and regionalise all of the individuals hits, by hand — the auto-region function has never seemed accurate enough to me. Then I'll mute all the hits, but leave the regions still marked. Then I'll put my own drum sounds into the regions using the Mix function. It's great because you can layer a lot of sounds in the regions, just as a drum kit would have hats and snares and so on overlapping and interacting with each other. I can have the flow and nuances of real drums, but with whatever sounds I want. The possibilities are endless!"
Unusually, Aaron's beats are programmed in Med Sound Studio ("I use it in every track, I love it"), a Windows port of the old Octamed sample tracker for the Commodore Amiga. However, he's also enthusiastic about some more mainstream software such as Cubase VST: "I think VST plug-ins are amazing and I've actually gotten rid of most of my hardware synths and effects as a result. I also love the fact that you can automate everything in Cubase, and do EQ sweeps and things that would otherwise be impossible unless you wanted to sit there turning a knob on an external effects box, trying to record it over and over until you got it right... which is what I had to do pre-Cubase!"
These days it's not unusual, particularly in the field of dance music, to hear about tracks being written and recorded in bedrooms, using minimal equipment. However, it's still comparatively uncommon for a fully functioning record company, handling every stage of the production process up to manufacturing, to be run from a bedroom, using essentially the same minimal equipment.
A blue and white G3 Apple Mac is central to what Mike does, both in his work for the label and as an artist in his own right. However, up until relatively recently, all of his computing chores had been handled by a faithful old Atari ST. So, what prompted the change? "I wanted to work with audio," he says simply. "Before, I was just using MIDI and samplers."
Logic Audio is the sequencer of choice, and Mike admits that the main attraction is less the facility to record acoustic instruments and vocals, but more the extra potential for "mashing things up" afforded him by the various effects plug-ins available. "Logic is set up like a multitrack tape machine," he remarks. "It's old-fashioned, really. The manual is so shit that you have to figure it all out for yourself, and work out how to do what you want to do.
"I've got a MOTU 2408 audio card, which has got eight ins and eight outs, and I have everything plugged into that: the mixer, my DAT, my speakers. Anything I want to record, I can do it like that: controlling where all the inputs and outputs go from the window in Logic. It's a luxury, really — I basically use it as a glorified patchbay."
While Mike has figured out how to do what he wants to do with audio in Logic, his experiences with the MIDI side of things have been slightly less satisfactory. "People say the MIDI timing in Logic is all right, that it's spot on," he asserts, "but these people aren't working at 200bpm in swing time. Some instruments, like the sampler, just don't always respond properly via MIDI on snare rolls or whatever."
Getting to grips with programming in Logic has also presented some problems: "I used to be so quick with Cubase on the Atari, but with Logic it's different. There's no paintbrush, which I used to use a lot. But I'm getting used to it..."
Mike's bedroom studio is used not only to produce his own music, but also to edit, post-produce and master more or less every track Planet Mu releases. The debut LP by Detroit's Dykehouse, for example, was compiled out of material sent on demos over quite a long period of time. The earlier demos were on cassette, while the later ones arrived on Minidisc. All of them were considered fair game when it came to compiling the finished record. "For some of the tracks, I just recorded them from cassette into the Mac," says Mike. "I use Peak, and I had some kind of de-noiser plug-in... I can't remember if it was TC Works or Steinberg," he says. "You have to be careful, though — those things can hollow out the sound."
Mike is also not shy about quite drastically editing his artists' tracks, if he feels they need it: "Sometimes a track might not deserve to be six minutes long, so I'll cut it down to three or four minutes. Of course with some things, you can't do that. The Leafcutter John album, for example: you couldn't edit that without destroying it."
- Akai MPC3000 sampling workstation.
- Apple G3 Macintosh (blue & white).
- Bias Peak 2.0 with SFX Machine 1.20.
- Boss SE70 and PS2 multi-effects.
- Casio FZ1 sampler.
- Clavia Nord Lead 2 and Micromodular synths.
- Emagic Logic Audio.
- Emu ESI32 and E5000 samplers.
- Lexicon MPX100 multi-effects.
- Mackie 1402 VLZ mini-desk (for live use).
- MOTU 2408 audio interface.
- Roland D50 synth.
- Soundcraft Spirit Studio 24:8:2 desk.
- Tascam DA20 DAT.
- TEAC W415 dual cassette deck.
At a time when a large sector of the industry seems to be concerned only with churning out manufactured boy or girl bands, when what remains of the weekly music press is in terminal decline and record sales in general are falling, Planet Mu stands out as an example of commitment and integrity. An independent label that goes out of its way to support innovative new artists, in spite of commercial pressures to do otherwise, and at no small cost to itself, Planet Mu serves as a reminder of what the music business should be about.
Planet Mu Records can be found on the web at www.planet-mu.com.
Unlike some larger labels, Planet Mu have been remarkably generous to fans visiting their website. An entire Dykehouse EP, complete with printable CD case inlays, was made available for free download prior to the release of the Dynamic Obsolescence LP, and more recently, two exclusive Venetian Snares live tracks have been posted. So is Mike a supporter of MP3 and free music online?
"I have mixed feelings," he says, pointedly. His ambivalence is understandable, given that there's a lively online trade in MP3s of some Planet Mu recordings that weren't given away with Mike's blessing. Does he think this illicit traffic is costing the label money?
"How do we know? I know our sales since '98 have been going down. People always talk about bands like Metallica with this, and that's one thing — but when artists are earning a thousand quid for an album, and just scraping a living, that's another.
"If it's Metallica," he chuckles, "then fine. If it's me, f**k off!"
A conversation with John Burton (aka Leafcutter John) is an experience not unlike listening to his recent Planet Mu LP, Microcontact. There's a kind of unhurried, non-linear progression from one idea to the next. It's a relaxed, roundabout journey, with occasional pauses to enjoy the scenery, or explore various diversions from the expected path.
"Microcontact started out to be..." he pauses, "I wanted to make quite an academic record, actually."
Academic? "Yes, I wanted it to be just about experiments to see what I could get out of recording real sounds and treating them in the computer. And I just started out making it like that really: purely as an experiment, to see what I could do.
"I sent Mike Paradinas lots of demos, and we ended up with this really, really intense-sounding thing. We were a bit unsure of how it was going to go down because it was so..." he pauses, as if uncomfortable with the word, "'ambient', and there was hardly anything solid there: just a few sounds floating around.
"I've still got the demos of that," he continues, "and it's really nice. It's basically all the quiet bits off Microcontact, but very, very long. The other bits came later, when I'd sort of changed my mood a bit. The whole thing took about a year to write."
John's sound treatments are all performed with a 350MHz G4 Mac, running Pro Tools LE, to which he recently upgraded from a "really, really slow PC." However, Pro Tools is not used only as a glorified digital tape recorder. "I do shitloads of sequencing in Pro Tools," he says, "even though it's not brilliant for it — but I found that because it's so simple MIDI-wise, it just makes you think really creatively, because you have to. I've tried every sequencer under the sun, and even though Logic and Cubase have loads and loads of cool MIDI stuff built in, I really never used any of it. I'm just used to programming it all by hand."
Given John's devotion to studio-bound experimentation, you might be surprised to learn that Leafcutter John is a regular draw on the live circuit. When we spoke, he had just completed a tour of Germany alongside fellow Planet Mu signing Capitol K. How does John approach taking his music out live?
"It's always been a bit tricky, because, you know, you spend a year writing 10 tracks in your studio... and then part of you says 'Oh, you should try and play this live.' What I do is I use [Cycling 74's] Max, which I've been kind of getting into over the last few months. Max is actually basically a MIDI environment, and there's MSP which is a set of objects for that environment that let you deal with audio. It's very simple in it's essence. You construct patches out of objects, but they're very simple objects, and you can end up with very complex patches. It's very powerful."
And this works in a live setting? "Yeah, that's the great thing about it. I put the actual sound files — which are more or less the masters for the album, with a bit of topping and tailing — into Max, and I can play them live, chop them up, and come up with something which sounds similar to the album, just using a keyboard and a laptop. Improvisation is very important. I mean, I've done gigs where I've just played it off Minidisc. I think everybody has — certainly everyone that I know has done stuff like that. But I really feel like you should give something to people who have come to a show, even if they haven't paid to get in."