Mike Dred
The Kosmik Kommando

Mike Dred has spent nine years on a stormy voyage of sonic discovery. Now he's back, with two albums that push the boundaries of analogue and digital production

By Kone-R

 
The name Mike Dred is synonymous with acid music. Famously described in Tim Barr's The Rough Guide to Techno as 'the Jimi Hendrix of the 303', few musicians are quite as intimately attuned to the workings of the Roland TB-303 Bass Line synthesizer as Dred, real name Michael Christopher Cullen, also known as the Kosmik Kommando, Machine Codes, Chimera, DJ Judge Dred, and Space Avenger.

As the Kosmik Kommando, he was the first artist other than Aphex Twin to release on Rephlex, the label run by Aphex and Grant Wilson-Claridge. He's also credited, along with Aphex, for the label's celebrated Universal Indicator series of raw, mutant acid tracks.

Dred has kept at the forefront of developments in music technology since the '90s. A sound designer and mastering engineer of great distinction, he's produced music for film, TV and adverts, with his work also used to educational ends, while his collaborations with experimental composer Peter Green have played an important role in raising the profile of electroacoustic music. Under his pseudonyms, he's released on labels such as R&S (and its defunct sublabel Diatomyc, which was largely devoted to Dred's acid output), Axodya, Beta Bodega, and WMF Records, in addition to Rephlex and his own recently revived Machine Codes imprint.

His last album, Kosmik Kommando's Laptop Dancing, released back in 2000, swerved sharply away from his trademark acid sound (Dred now feels it has "better artwork and production concepts than the actual resulting productions themselves"). Since then, he's spent much of his time working on a solo project "with sonic sculpture as the principle aspect", the results of which he plans to release in album form later this year. More imminently however, is the release of a whole new LP of ferocious TB-303 virtuosity on Machine Codes.

Ahead of the release of the first album, and a rare performance in London (in aid of recent events in Japan), Kone-R interviewed Dred about his return to making acid tracks, his sound design activities, and his views on current music and trends in production technology.

Go here for a rather brilliant DJ mix by Mike Dred, recorded back at the height of the acid scene in the late '80s.
 
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First thing's first: there's a new Kosmik Kommando album on the way, the first since 2000's Laptop Dancing. That album was quite different stylistically to the traditional acid techno you had been known for in the early years on Rephlex. From what I've heard of the new material it sounds like a return to that 'innovation in the dynamics of acid' template — fast, hard, uncompromising. What's made you return to this sound now?
I have always been fuelled by a particular slant of curiosity which explains why, once I put my fingers into a plug socket and was sent flying back through mid-air across my bedroom and hit the opposite wall. My closest flirtation with death was soon after that, when I thought it would be good to jump onto a solar bubble swimming pool cover, only to be enveloped and sucked under and fight for my life to only just scramble free. Even with respect to how I use something as simple as a Bass Line synth, I just jump in and once in, I see what happens in an unorthodox way.

This is a loaded question, so I’ll cover the stuff you reference. The reason is pretty straightforward: I needed to craft a raw form of music that was spontaneous. I needed to step off the computer timeline, stand up, move my body and reach out to feel the electricity… feel those voltages and take control of them. I needed to do what comes naturally for me in a single-take, live mix-down recording scenario with just a few simple machines and tape, instead of bothersome computers with internets and such like vying to monopolise and devour my attention.
 
I craved the times where the only visual feedback is how many channels are muted on a mixing desk, so I could punch in and out as the forms blended together to create a voltage-controlled fury in my mind while embracing my synths at the same time.

Capturing these moments as a real time mix makes a hell of a difference. It makes every recording a one-off performance that is extremely difficult to replicate. The spontaneity of riding faders and adjusting FX returns at the precise moment that you feel it, free of the burden of worrying about what ‘has to happen next’, is sheer bliss. I needed to dance, think and feel with my energy while recording.

Working this way, I don’t have to stroke my chin and edit and re-edit. If I don’t like the result, I rewind the tape and try again. Sometimes it can take more than a day of trying to finally record a version I like. But that is how all the stuff I released years ago was made. Limitations are often conducive to a better result. Same applies to gear. The more you have, the more time you can potentially waste scratching the surface and dipping in a toe or two, rather than fully submerging yourself into a few select weapons of choice.

I love the fact that these voltage-controlled machines are so sensitive, so beautifully selfish and unforgiving in terms of how vulnerable a timbral element is to the tiniest fluctuation in voltage from the most miniscule movement of a potentiometer.

I craved the tactile intimacy of the physical-emotional feedback response inherent in these methods that predate sitting in front of a digital audio workstation. My decisions are a direct response to a learned tension in the pot or fader unique to a particular machine. There is no need to use my eyes so much and this frees up more power for the physical sense of hearing and the emotional aspect of feeling. Then, I can just groove with a unified resonance, while seizing a moment and getting a performance locked down without the option to go back and tinker and mess it up because I tinkered too much and lost it. There are no 'strops' because I destroyed something that was previously working fine. With this approach, one focuses absolutely on the moment and not what can be done later, because there is no later. No room for procrastination. Once it’s gone, it’s never coming back. You are truly energised while composing on the fly. You grab the beat and the bass line and the sequential flow rises up from your spontaneous interaction.

To further explain the analogue choice of this new KK LP, I should talk a little bit about digital.

Back at the 2001 Sonar Festival, I remember a conversation I had with the guy who runs what has become a successful music software company. After having showcased the Reaktor program for them, running as an instrument inside of a DAW [digital audio workstation] by another company, I mentioned that a lot of valuable time was consumed having to be more of a programmer and troubleshooter, getting the environment to behave properly, rather than having the freedom to just get on, get tactile and perform. He laughed me off with an irritated retort that “musicians have to be programmers”. Fair to say, he was missing the point and chose to get defensive rather than discuss. Sure, it helps if you can program, but it’s not essential. A basic comprehension of logic flow and control flow is sufficient. And, you can’t really code (or object code à la MSP) a performance in real-time, not back then anyway. The majority of people will be end-users who want to interface with stable environments, not design and repeatedly troubleshoot them.
 
Anyway, later on I felt sorry for him because I knew that he knew that I was right. So… let’s fast forward 10 years and analyse where we are and the approach such companies are taking. A vast array of software packages and control surfaces, all ready to rumble straight out of the box and straight off a disc with pre-packaged loops and pre-sets and tutorials, backed up by websites to go and grab even more from, enough to encourage or deter (depending your viewpoint) any sense of artistic freedom.

I recognise that some of these systems are improving in their approach to functionality and controllability. However, the sonic characteristics that define these tools are impuissant with respect to what they aspire to emulate and border on pestiferous when amplified. But, I know that if you are under 30, you probably don’t really care.
 
Sure, soon enough the sound of software geared for emulation of analogue systems will improve and be closer to the true analogue characteristics that these R&D guys are so desperate to reproduce digitally, but that time is not now, by any stretch of the imagination.

For 15 years now, the software industry has recoiled from investing sufficient resources in the development of serious real-time spectral synthesis tools that harness the true power of the digital domain and open up wondrous audio design possibilities to producers, so that they can advance dance music composition to a next level paradigm. Instead, the emphasis continues to be on emulating past technologies. It’s a bit like telling kids to go off and make music similar to what their mum and dad made, with little thought for progression. It’s playing safe and steady, which is a shame.

Young producers could push these companies in a positive direction if they themselves get to know the power of the frequency domain. In principle, is all powerful. You can take any sound from any other synthesis model or Mother Nature and use it as the source wave for creating output via parametric adjustments of one of a few, hundreds or even thousands of frequency divisions per channel, free from the aliasing artefacts that colour manipulation in the time domain.

The computing power is now available and affordable. We just need a few decision-making heads to champion user-friendly interfaces that play to the strengths of digital domain synthesis. It is 17 years since I got excited about Korg’s affordable physical modelling units, like my Prophecy. Then in '98, along came MetaSynth, a wonderful method of software synthesis and even NI, to their credit, embraced the real-time spectral synthesis principle with their spectral delay program which they also gave me back in 2001 to trial. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring all of these units and applications.
 
One of my favourite machines, the Yamaha FS1R, is a piece of digital hardware. I bought it in Japan in '98 while touring. To this day I have hardly shifted it out of 2nd gear. It’s so hugely complex and vastly powerful. FM with the unique addition of formant synthesis models are incredibly rich design technologies and offer enormous scope for digital sound creation, even in 2011.

Digital tool designers need to focus further development in these areas rather than trying to be a 303 or ARP-2600 etc. Surely it’s time to step it up and exploit digital for digital's sake, not as a vehicle for paying homage to analogue classics.

Of course, one shouldn’t forget that as soon as a major OS architecture gets upgraded or updated, motherboard circuitry is no longer backward compatible, current format computer audio systems become redundant, and one has to fork out more cash to continue using them (one is left wondering how much sympathy to reserve when they start harping on about piracy). This is so often a major disappointment with computer software versus the comparative immortality of analogue integrated circuit hardware instruments.

So, to get back to the point and with the criticisms of analogue emulation in mind, I wanted to make some raw sonic energy for the dancefloor and the car, nothing flash… but primarily to remove myself from the globally inane sonic characteristics of dance music software designed to unconvincingly emulate the real machines.

I am not revisiting the past and the beginnings of Rephlex. I am just doing MY thing and I think the tracks on the LP are quite different from the early '90s Universal Indicator vibe.

You mention the Laptop Dancing LP. This is not a project that I am comfortable with. It has better artwork and production concepts than the actual resulting productions themselves.

I’m way happier with the Virtual Farmer LP, composed together with Peter Green, that preceded Laptop Dancing. It is sounding a little dated in places now… yet, some sections sound like they could have been made today and sit very comfortably alongside new experimental compositions. The things we were doing in '95 raised a few choice eyebrows from certain respected vanguards of electronic music and I thoroughly enjoyed the experimentation, because by the end of '94, I had become disillusioned with techno music by definition.
 
Regarding the UI [Universal Indicator] stuff, these were a bunch of raw, rough and ready jams that just happened to stand out a bit at that time. It’s shocking to think back to how they were made. Nothing sophisticated there. Again, all about just getting stuff down as quickly as possible with a few boxes and not paying any attention to what anybody else was up to. It really was a very personal sound. That is the main link in common with the approach and track selection on the new Kosmik Kommando LP. The same toys were used and the same mind fed them, so there is a synergy of sorts.
 
I find it easier to apply an insurgent approach to making music rather than conform and follow templates and stereotypes. So, to release this sound now is kind of fresh, not stylistically, but rather in contextual comparison to many new releases that I’m hearing from other boys and girls on a 303 tip. This is very much ‘my sound’ and I am very comfortable with that.

Recently a guy said to me that he didn’t really like my last record. So I enquired as to why and he replied that it was “too simple”. I thought about this for a moment and realised that what he was taking for granted was the skilled technique of getting a particular analogue synthesizer (that he knows intimately) to produce the leading sound that is extremely difficult to coax out of the said synthesizer.
 
You see, simplicity can be the product of a very complex or super-delicate approach to configuring a synthesizer patch. Until one tries, one is subject to such ignorance in one’s haste to pass judgement without knowing the facts. If the sound is rather unique, why mask it with flash-in-the-pan artfulness? The artfulness (trickery) is in the design and realisation of the simple element. Once this principle is considered seriously and the listener still doesn’t vibe with the sound, then fair enough. Green isn’t necessarily green. We are all a little colour blind. That’s fine.
The album will effectively be self-released via your Machine Codes imprint as a strictly limited vinyl edition. I assume this means you're still a vinyl junkie? What impression has the 'digital music revolution' made on you? Any plans for a digital release of the album?
These days, vinyl is a canvas for limited edition works of art, framed in a sleeve that itself is a canvas that also demands a personal and loving touch. I’m making 100 pressings on 2x 180g plates for a double LP release. I dare not press any more. Is there a demand? I doubt it. It’s not fashionable music. The demand is no longer sufficient to satisfy the fix of a junkie.
 
Rather, I am holding the hand of Vinyl as she spins defiantly into the shadows of a Digital Mount Doom, where even more trolls await to feed off the easy pickings that come their way from this ‘revolution’, even more so than those that manifested the hallways of the mechanical music industry.
 
I’m surprised by how little music is valued in the digital domain, not just by punters but more so by those that call themselves producers. It has a magnified sense of disposability, opportunism and worthlessness. But, I understand that the kids will find a way to make it work for them, just like we did with records and mixtapes. I doubt very much any of them will last in the business though, before jacking it in and joining those to whom they have fed a diet of free music, mainly free of inspiration, forged from free templates. One or two will shine, that is down by law.

Yes, I have to try the digital approach. Otherwise, who is going to find my music? I have secured a global distribution deal with one of the longest-standing UK digital distribution companies for Machine Codes as a label. Regardless of what happens to my music in this domain, at least I can present a platform and gateway for new artists, and perhaps kick back a little and enjoy giving them a leg up. The way I see it, I have nothing to lose from doing a digital release. My complete back catalogue is available online via the many torrents thanks to people who don’t want me to make a living. There is not a lot one can do about it… except stop and starve them. But that is not going to change the world is it? To do so is simply just cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.
Away from the more club-oriented side of your music, you also have a great reputation as an experimental sound designer. What have you got going on in that regard at the moment? 
This is a nice question. On the 1st of January 2001, I began a project that I estimated would take a year to realise, with sonic sculpture as the principle aspect. I had in mind a solo project that would build upon the knowledge and execution of digital sound transformation techniques explored in previous Machine Codes releases.

I wanted to challenge myself by not repeating any of the techniques used in those previous projects. I wanted to limit myself to the two fundamental elements of sound synthesis, frequency and time, but completely on a digital canvas. However, I banned myself from using third party tools and algorithms, as to my ears, they have a very identifiable character which is one of the reasons my heart sinks when I think about a lot of music which is classified as electroacoustic or acousmatic. That genre has the world at its feet and yet it is diseased with tired techniques and the same old sonic signatures. An aficionado might argue that these signatures are what define electroacoustic music as a genre. However, I disagree. Many other genres have limits, because they have an ‘en vogue’ set of boundaries (big arguments can kick off as so often they do when the topic is subject to fashion over style). EA does not, as it can take any sound as an input for further synthesis and project the results around a large array of speakers for further, deeper interpretation. So why not simply step outside the box and expand on the availability of that extraordinary boundless palette? For me, this resonates with the evolutionary principles of techno music and where that style of music should be in 2011.

Too often in sound design-orientated composition, the algorithm is the composer and the human is merely an operator or random selector, of sorts. I really wanted my own character to shine through, so all previous pre-packaged technologies were discarded in favour of painstaking construction and deconstruction of individually designed sonic elements, as far as possible free of notation, free of the sequential timeline and precisely arranged to create the illusion or sensation of a naturally occurring temporality. A style of non-notational composition, yet more conceptually refined than the classic schools of concrete and chance. Little did I know that it would be 2009 before I actually finished, hence what appears to be my non-prolific (release) start to the 21st Century.

The project ended up including two tracks that are very musical, but I have deeper technological design and compositional reasons for their inclusion.

Working with a majority of bespoke designed non-notational sound objects taught me a lot about timbral observation and also how to tune into and trust my internal rhythms. In a way, it aligned me a lot closer to nature, but paradoxically within the realms of my own unnatural digital wonderland.
 
Again, I will disappoint many people who seem to hold out for more of the same… such as my early Rephlex and R&S days. But, I’m only ever doing any of this for myself and if a few people feel something sincere in what I’m up to — then great. If I touch a deep or dormant area of another person’s imagination, then ‘job done'. It can get very lonely, but I’m not worried about people who get left behind and are stuck in the mud of a particular era. The world is way too wonderful and vibrant to stand still or keep harking back to what is perceived as the informative years of discovery and then ceasing to look any further forward. This is why, to my ears, the new KK Analogue LP is not like the UI releases. It’s something quite different.
 
Every day, I see and hear something new around me which inspires me to go 'wow!' So, I keep moving and exploring; keeping track of the substantial lexicon of audible experiences that I have been lucky enough to store in my mind. The greater your exposure, the greater the challenges you can impose upon yourself as an artist, and in my case I made some pretty tasty discoveries, born out of trying to deliberately stay away from what I perceived to be clichéd and over-exposed techniques, however emotionally painful the process was. The LP will be out later on in 2011, almost two years later than I expected.
What about performing? Will you be taking your analogue boxes on the road?
I have given too much of my most precious energy and not reciprocated enough to refuel just lately. So, having finished the nine-year project and spent 15 months listening to it over and over, I just want to look after myself. When I feel the machines pulling me back, maybe I will take them outside to play. I would do a show with the machines if it was an amazing proposition. But no, live is no longer live these days, is it? I found it disheartening to arrive with 15 to 20 machines, spend two hours wiring them up and doing a one-hour show based mainly on improvised performance, only to be subjected to someone with a laptop playing wave files, pre-composed and arranged in a studio or bedroom, while miming or dragging around windows on a screen. I fully accept that this is the way it is today and it’s not going to change in a hurry. I understand the proposition that people dancing don’t really care what kit is used because they just want to enjoy the music and throw their hands up rather than concern themselves with the technicalities. That argument certainly justifies me charging £10K to press the space bar on a laptop in the future. Certainly frees up a stack of prep time.
You're headlining a fundraiser event for Japan in London soon. Have you been affected by the events there? How did the event come about?
I am affected like everyone, I expect, in terms of sympathy for the Japanese people. It’s tragic. Some guys wanted to raise money and asked me to play this show. It is a worthy cause to play a rare gig in England. I will be donating prizes for a raffle to raise money on the night to go to the chosen charity. Many of my machines are Japanese, so where would I be as a composer, performer and DJ without Japanese technology? This is very thought provoking, indeed. Nature/Gaia is unhappy and we have to consider her as well.
You've been referred to as 'the Jimi Hendrix of the 303'. That's quite some compliment. How did you feel when you first heard that?
I think I giggled and felt okay… Giggled again and still felt okay. People often tell me that the sound I create with these little silver boxes is different. What else can I say? It’s a lovely accolade and certainly a compliment. Listening to the new analogue LP you will hear quite a lot of variation from the 303, which separates my style from the purist acid sound. It is an instrument after all.
What's the best new record you've heard recently? Do you listen to many new producers or, as a bona fide elder statesman of techno, do you find yourself increasingly returning to the classics?
I love listening to new music. Once upon a time I loved John Peel for that — bless him. But with YouTube and the various cloud sites, there is plenty to check out. I get sent loads of stuff and links from people too, so I’m pretty lucky really.
 
Techno, in the generally accepted definitions of its genre, is a bit naff and tired. Once techno was about technological advancement, but since the mid '90s it has become a bit of a one-trick pony. Then it gets re-badged by a movement in Berlin. There is a kind of Mecca there called the Berghain where they like to piss and shit on each other’s heads. A guy explained that the men's toilets drain over an area that people can walk through if they have a penchant for being peed on. Cameras are not allowed inside the venue, but when I took a load of synths there and played a live show in 2009, my mate and I took loads of blind photos by holding the camera with the flash on in and around the doorways to loads of dark rooms around the main arena. The photos were pretty dark when we checked them out later... bondage and ‘other activity’ rooms with their cages, harnesses and used rolls of toilet paper strewn about. They were handing out flyers for nights called “Yellow Party” and “Ass to Mouth”. No shit! (Or maybe there was!)
 
Have to say though… Damn fine sound system in that place — shame nothing decent gets plugged into it on a regular basis. At least they’re having a good time pissing on each other. Whatever works, I suppose!

I like a lot of the raw sounds and rhythm in the broken beat scenes, right across the BPM spectrum. That is where the freshest ideas are right now for me, ignoring the now-overcooked attempts at swept LFO-modulated (wobble) bass line distortions. Kids are on it. They are pushing it along. Good stuff!
 
I hear some pretty decent phrases in a lot of pop music too as it goes, even among the vomit-inducing formulas… a lot more often than I do in techno music per se. I hear a lot of fat TR-808 programming (I put that down to Def Jam getting into bed with Island and becoming a pop label) and tasty edits in current pop music, which puts a smile on my face. Britney is rocking out tighter production techniques than the Beatport 100 right now. Actually, she always has done.
What are the three records that have had the biggest influence on you?
I can’t answer that because I don’t know the answer. Really, I don’t. It’s incomputable.
You've now produced a varied and sizable catalogue of work. Is there any one release or track of which you're most proud, and why is that?
To be honest, this century I could be perceived as being a slacker. I’ve only released one EP since 2001. I usually hate everything I make. It takes years before I can begin to even contemplate liking myself. Although there is one track on Rephlex which I adore, simply because it sounds so simple but was so incredibly complicated to conceive that I could never ever make it again in a billion years. Luckily that day, I recorded two mixes and will release the second mix soon enough; I still have the DAT and they are so beautifully violent. Also, on the second LP to come later this year, there are a few tracks that I am deeply and madly in love with, but I think most people will find them scary or freakish. But I know just how much blood was spent, creating them.
 
I’m buzzing for this second LP to come out. I reckon 20 pressings will be an acceptable production level even though it consumed me for nine years. It was a hard trip and a stormy voyage of discovery. There is one piece that is based on a process I designed to digitally synthesize water, including dripping, bubbling and running water of different strengths and with the impression of varying forces acting upon them, including the nuances that are present in these organic, ever-variable timbres. This was a satisfying personal achievement because I was then able to create a very precise spatial environment, where I also played with air-pressure synthesis, to host my ‘water’, free of the constraints that natural locations would have imposed.

Another piece is made primarily of sewing machine sounds and the introduction is a rhythm forged from 800 individual scissor clicks, designed to embrace dynamic variations present in percussion. Try ‘playing’ out a rhythm with your thumb and finger holding a pair of scissors normally and see how incredibly frustrating it is to simulate not only a convincing rhythm, but especially dynamic variation. Then imagine you are the size of the needle head with this bloody great couture sewing machine as your world.
 
The human voice is quite possibly the most versatile instrument available and two of the tracks explore the beauty and sensitivity of the voice, via simple yet painstakingly applied alterations. Then, there is a bunch of ridiculously powerful and delicate sonic structures that champion the beauty and art of dynamic interchange. In another piece, I invented a process for automatically generating a bass line from another element within the same piece of music and this is showcased on one of the two musical pieces.
 
Before that project sees the light of day, I have the 100 pressings of the new Kosmik Kommando analogue synth LP to spray paint and then post to supporters, so more about the experimental sound design LP later, maybe.
Finally, I've always wondered where the 'Dred' moniker came from? Can you enlighten us?
Yes, that was given to me during an unexpected supernatural experience (I’ve never taken drugs — so that is irrelevant). I woke up in a frightful state in the early hours of one morning with my brainwaves running at approximately 64x regular clock speed and real life was like slow motion around me in my little bedsit, and I felt powerless. As my thoughts raced toward me at an astonishing pace, I actually felt myself being physically propelled forwards in the other direction. Quite peculiar, with so much scrambled information rushing by. Out of this scramble came a few messages, one of which refers to your question. It has nothing to do with a popular cultural reference. It is completely independent from all that stuff and passed to me in order to protect me from problems at that time. But just recently, I was told in a dream that it is okay to let go now and be whoever I want to be from now on, which is exciting for my future. I have, with one other person present each time, seen a space craft and witnessed poltergeist activity. I guess that is normal when you are hypersensitive to certain phenomena, but I feel lucky.
 The next Kosmik Kommando LP is out soon on Machine Codes.
 Mike Dred plays a Japan benefit gig in London on April 28th.
Fluorescent Grey posted 27 April 2011 (23:32:55)
Great interview, his breakdown of software being stuck in a regressive direction is 100% true. I also own an FS1R and along with the Yamaha VL1 it goes to show that even back in 1994 we had the technology to push synthesis in hugely new broad directions but the entire industry found that it wasn't a huge money maker so going back in to the past was a quicker way to get cash.
Anthony posted 18 April 2011 (23:07:11)
Also Mike Dred will be spinning at a very special Rephlex Recoeds 20th Anniversary party in Leeds @ Beaverworks on June 4th http://www.cataclyst.net
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