Luke Vibert

Luke Vibert gets cheese caught in his goatee as he goes head to head with celebrated pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole on a collaborative album project. Hawaiian hip hop anyone?

By Richard Wilkes

Luke Vibert is undoubtedly one of the figureheads of beat-infested, sampledelic head music. Although little is known about his approach, his aspirations or his background, Vibert is hugely respected by followers and fellow artists alike, having influenced many with his unorthodox production trickery. In line with West Country compatriots the Aphex Twin and Mike Paradinas, he believes, rightly, that good music just happens, and there’s little need to theorise about it.

Mystery can be a powerful ingredient within music. The ability of music to invoke otherworldliness is often enhanced by the enigmatic stature of its creators; take Drexciya, Kraftwerk, Prince even — their mystique has played an important role in instilling legendary status. But in Luke’s diverse back-catalogue, there is no 'grand concept' hidden behind his music. His material may lack the metaphysical designs of Jeff Mills’ Axis sleeves, yet by listening attentively to his tracks many ideas and subtleties of more experimental avant-garde artists are soon revealed: rhythms on tin cans, abnormal whining noises, whispers, treated guitars, concrete sounds...

For him, music making is an entirely self-satisfying process. Each unorthodox element used in his tracks, be it a gunshot, a whimper or the screams of a mad professor appears for the simple reason that Luke liked it: "I like putting lots of little detail in, even if its really background detail. At the time it’s just to amuse me — I’m not thinking ‘ah this will make people listen to it longer and get into it for longer’, but it does hopefully have that effect."

For someone who finds it difficult keeping his own material minimal, his listening pleasures seem much less aurally cumbersome, such as "10-year-old hip hop tracks which have fuck all to them." Perhaps it’s this deep understanding of space and subtlety that, despite his penchant for adding detail, prevents his music from ever becoming too claustrophobic. He admits that the sense of anticipation he often evokes by saving the finest track elements until the end of compositions is purely for self-satisfaction. "Sometimes I like to save the very best bit, something I've worked on for ages ‘til the very end. It’s for the same reason – so that it will entertain me more."

It’s only after the tracks are finished he allows any outside considerations to be incorporated. "I’ll do loads of stuff – like 20 tracks in two weeks or something. After a few you just start thinking ‘ah I see the shape of the thing’, and then old tracks fit in." Luke’s first solo album Phat Lab Nightmare, for example, was merely a collection of his scariest tracks rather than a profound attempt to construct a scary album. He works on the continuity within a release once the creative process is over, rather than interlinking the two. Aphex Twin works in much the same way, as demonstrated on Selected Ambient Works. Similarly they’ve both been known to resort to the opinions of their friends when choosing which tracks to include on a particular project, as often producers are too close to their work to know which pieces are the most effective or entertaining.

There are exceptions to Luke’s creative preference for solitary studio confinement, as displayed by his latest album Stop the Panic, recorded with legendary steel guitarist BJ Cole. "It does depend on what the job is," he admits, "if it's a remix or something, or the stuff with BJ Cole... which is more of a compromise obviously." Not that Luke views this to be a true compromise, but more of a two-stage process, as he goes on to explain: "We did loads of stuff just playing around together, jamming up at his place because he hasn't got a computer. We recorded most stuff up there. Then I just took it back here and did all the anal late night work."

The fact that BJ Cole is old enough to be Luke’s uncle didn’t detract from the vibe which, most importantly, was free. "The only pre-conceived idea I had was the kind of Hawaiian tip, or not so much Hawaiian as exotic, because I’ve got loads of nice exotic stuff with steel [guitar] on it. I just thought 'oh wicked, I can just drench it in loads of reverb and make it really exotic.'" His passion for the exotic was born out of raiding his mum’s music collection: "I started off just liking it for sampling, but in the end I thought ‘shit hang on, this is wicked in its own right.’" Stop the Panic isn’t all Hawaiian shirts however. "After we had done two of them [Hawaiian tracks] I thought we’d done enough of that, and then started to do proper stuff rather than just playing round."

As a consequence the album flits between humour and exploration; Hawaii and the Wild West; melancholia and acid groove. "The album is a lot more experimental than my own stuff," he tells me, "less accessible in places and then more accessible in others." So tracks like Party Animal comes straight after the eerie emotiveness of Watery Glass Planet (Part 3), the only constant being that they both use drum n’ bass rhythms. Elsewhere there’s the melancholic saddlery of Hipalong Hop with its tin-can banjo, one of the tracks featuring female singer Ade Brik (heard on last year's Female of the Species compilation). It’s the first time Luke has worked with a female vocalist, but as Baby Steps demonstrates, this unlikely union does not equal diva-stapled-to-a-beat predictability. Within the one track the vocal is manipulated into multifarious forms: rhythmic punch holes, soulful laments, child-like ha-has and lyrical snippets all bounce off each other in a bizarre and twisted arrangement. She even sounds like a squealing dog at one point, but it never gets too much. In fact, the overall subtlety on display means that unless you’re really listening out, you won’t notice because it’s all dressed in a sugary sweet hip hop groove. The oriental tinged melancholic acid hip-hop of Chewg Phooey perhaps takes the prize of the writer's favourite — Luke’s deep funk acid-groove is the perfect foundation on which BJ Cole’s slide guitar becomes a dreamy ride of emotive magic carpet hypnosis.

So, by Luke’s own admission the BJ Cole project is more experimental. Bearing in mind recent releases like Tally Ho! with its blatant party vibe, does Luke then admit that his solo stuff is becoming increasingly accessible, less idiosyncratic? "Maybe. I’ve always done those kind of cheesy tunes... I think originally I just wouldn’t have released them because I would have been thinking it had got to be more serious, possibly. I didn’t really put the humour in until Throbbing Pouch [Rising High, 1994], and even then it was quite minimal really." Your earlier stuff was a lot darker? "Yeah, I think that was more the time. I’ve always done stuff like that. Even now I do lots of dark stuff, which I possibly will or won’t release depending on what my next thing is. But I’ve always done bits of everything really, and when it comes to releasing I just pick stuff." So for example..? "Well in the old days I was on the Rising High label and I thought it necessary to be more techno and more serious. It wasn’t until Throbbing Pouch that I just started doing what I wanted to do."

Of course, what Luke wants to do most is make music, "I do it as much as I can, but it’s less than I used to by quite a lot." More things to consider? "DJing always draws me away from it. In fact I kind of resent DJing a bit, even though I enjoy it. I find it easy and all that, but it still kind of pisses me off sometimes because I always feel like I should be working." A workaholic then, who even works in his listening time. "A lot of the time, probably 50% of the time, the stuff I’m working on is playing so that I can hear things and change them as I think about it."

His workaholic concentration will be somewhat distracted over the next few months however as track making is forced to take a back seat. "We’ll [himself and BJ] be touring until Feb or March or something, so I don’t want to think about it too much because I can’t get anything done — bits and pieces but not a whole project." So how will the tour work? Will it be BJ on slide and you on the sequencer? "Yeah we’ve got three or four tracks which aren’t anything to do with the album – just worked out for live stuff. A couple of acid ones with my 303, a couple of funky ones, and then a couple where he’ll improvise on top of a DAT so I can prepare for the next live bit."

Knowing that in the past Luke took up DJing because he didn’t want to play live, this new project provides us with an unprecedented chance to see him mashing the beats up in real time...
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