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ITEM • B12 – Electro Soma

B12 – Electro Soma

Electro-Soma was B12’s first record for Warp in 1993, with the upcoming release of the new Electro-Soma II compilation, Ben Murphy delves into the history of the duo and speaks to Steve Rutter & Michael Golding.
21/08/2017

Electro-Soma is among the most distinctive albums of this era, and among its best, taking the duo from anonymous figures on the fringe of the dance scene to emblems of techno, IDM and Warp’s Artificial Intelligence compilations.

While Electro Soma contains ten of their best early works, many more from the early ’90s period have only ever been available on the original EPs, the original CD version, or the B12 Archives CD set. The new Electro-Soma II compilation is a companion piece of equally vital tracks. Ranging from the dreamy house of ‘Ecliptic’ to the cascading synth effects and tough rides and claps of ‘Bubbles’ via the pared back rhythms and interlacing acid of ‘Time Tourist', in addition to the jazz-influenced ‘3EP’ in 1998. It’s B12’s unique, cinematic imagination that is celebrated now.

The notion of the faceless techno producer was turned to B12’s advantage from the very beginning when in 1991 a series of enigmatic 12”s began to appear in UK record shops. Bearing the banner of B12 Records, they were shrouded in mystery. Shrink-wrapped like imports and providing little information except the names of several unfamiliar artists — Musicology, 2001, Cmetric and Redcell — many assumed these singles were shipped from Detroit or Chicago. Contained within were space-age slivers of techno the equal of anything coming from the US. But these tracks were not the work of Derrick May or Kenny Larkin masquerading under a pseudonym. They were the creations of East Londoners Steven Rutter and Michael Golding, two acolytes of American dance who had channelled their love for machine beats into a UK strain of electronic music uniquely theirs.

Steven had grown up in Mile End, East London, listening to punk (“The Sex Pistols, Crass”) and ska before he encountered club music. The first electronic records he heard were from his stepdad. “He had a couple of Kraftwerk albums. I didn’t know too much about that kind of music. He listened to rock but he did play me a bit of Jean-Michel Jarre, those were probably the first electronic things I heard.”

His route into house music was more unusual. “In my late teens I lived in Walthamstow,” he says. “When I was in college, I used to hang around with a whole bunch of people who came from Trinidad and Tobago. We used to have these soca parties every weekend. I would DJ, they used to give me the records ’cause I didn’t have ’em, so it was reggae, soca, calypso, that kind of stuff. When that early Chicago house came along, in some respects, it wasn’t that far removed from what I was DJing. Beats and basslines, and a bit of soul. It was like a natural progression. And of course there were a couple of local record shops which, once the pipeline opened and the music started flowing in, were like nirvana. It was this excellent music that was danceable and I could mix. I used to bring house music to these calypso parties and it worked really well for crossover with the other music.”

Steven and Michael were introduced by Michael's sister, who told Steven that her brother was an aspiring DJ. They first met on Southend seafront. “He said, “Here’s my tape”. We got in my MK1 Escort, I put this tape on and it was diabolical, there was no mixing, it was horrendous, and after that time I became friends with him and I said, “I’ll show you how to mix”.” Michael did his own thing for a while, playing on pirate radio. He remembers the late 1980s period as being especially inspiring for dance music: “When [Rhythim is Rhythim/Derrick May’s] ‘Nude Photo’ appeared in ’87, we bought it immediately, but at that point it was just one track in a sea of amazing tunes coming out of Detroit and Chicago. Over the next 18 months, the sound developed. It was different - more complex, more detailed, more layered - but also we could play it in DJ sets or on my pirate radio shows that I did at the time. We bought everything as soon as it appeared in the shops, and I still have all my vinyl from those days.”

"We used to have these soca parties every weekend. I would DJ, they used to give me the records ’cause I didn’t have ’em, so it was reggae, soca, calypso, that kind of stuff. When that early Chicago house came along, in some respects, it wasn’t that far removed from what I was DJing. Beats and basslines, and a bit of soul. It was like a natural progression."

Steven Rutter

The duo were encouraged to make their own beats after hearing releases by US rave/breakbeat pioneer Frankie Bones, whose sample-based ‘Bonesbreaks’ EPs were simple but devastatingly effective fixtures in the sets of many DJs at the time. “Frankie Bones made us believe it was possible,” Michael says. “because his loops were so simple, and Steve had a sampling keyboard in his bedroom, so we tried it out.” Steven adds “We started making our own ‘Bonesbreak’-type tunes, I used to do things like Adonis’ ‘No Way Back’, the bassline from that put over an electro beat. We used to spend every day working on music. I was working by myself and Michael was working with another guy. Eventually we realised that us two together was a good combo and we joined forces.”

Their first tracks were under the name Infamix, on the 12” singles ‘Hypnotic FX’ and ‘Ee 45’, which they released through Industrial Music, an offshoot of Music of Life. “We were good friends with a DJ in East London, I think he lives in America now, named Linden C,” Steven says. “He was an old school DJ and ran a record shop called Dance Factory in Lea Bridge Road with Rob Atkinson. They used to be on Dance FM, a pirate station. We used to hang out in there and had some demos. We played them to Linden and he said, “This is wicked, I’ve got a contact at Music of Life Records”. It was a little label, I think the guy who ran it was called Simon Harris. We gave them some early recordings.”

A primitive iteration of what would later become the B12 sound, ‘Hypnotic FX’ had drifting pads, but cleaved closer to the Sheffield bleep of Sweet Exorcist, with its dubby sub bass, high pitched blips and minimalism. Still great dance records, they lack the sculptured sophistication of B12’s material, and sound very much of their time. “If you listen, you can hear it was us trying to find our feet,” Steven says. “We did two EPs as Infamix, and then we suddenly became competent. Those first two EPs were just like a couple of kids messing about, learning the ropes. Something changed and our music elevated a bit.”

B12 had arrived at their own sound: a refined, synth-led and futuristic vision, redolent of cloud cities and neon skyways, albeit avowedly informed by the American house and techno godfathers. “When you own hundreds and hundreds of American imports from the early, mid and late ’80s onwards, that is obviously your main point of reference,” Michael sets out. “Trax Records, Alleviated Records, Gherkin, Westbrook, Underground, Future Records, Metroplex, everything by K Alexi Shelby, Phuture, Mr Fingers… these were our main musical influences, because that is what we had been listening to for the previous six or seven years, day in and day out. We were fed up and wanted more house and techno, so almost out of frustration we made our own.”

After making do with a sampling keyboard and basic equipment, B12 had invested in new kit. One particular synth would be a key feature of their sonic identity: “We had two 808s, two 909s, two Juno 106s. A couple of the other little things, like the DX-100s, we had three of them at one point. But the keyboard that really shaped our sound was the Roland JD-800. We went and bought two of those. We used to look through Loot to see who was selling what, and there was this guy called Dick Turpin who would sell grey imports, buy them overseas and sell them, so we got our JD-800s for half price. No warranties or anything. Electro-Soma is JD-800 music. We loved that machine.”

Like some of their Detroit heroes — such as Juan Atkins, whose Cybotron and Model 500 records they’d bought religiously — B12 were fascinated by science fiction. Their track titles suggest a fixation with the future and space, while their grand, utopian synth strings are reminiscent of some glimmering futuristic craft launching from a distant planet. “We’re both complete geeks. We’re both computer programmers, we like computers,” Steven admits. “We watched loads of science fiction and read comics and books, it went hand in hand with our music. Our music would fit nicely in a science fiction film.”

When they first presented their music, they got a hostile reaction from some. The prevailing dance sound in the UK was hardcore, and to produce techno in the Detroit mode wasn’t acceptable, it seemed, from British producers. “I remember we played B12 01 in the record shop where Michael was working, Music Power in Ilford,” Steven says. “Pretty much everyone in there said, ‘Who is gonna want this? You must be mad, what are you doing?’ But we knew it was alright!” They decided that in order for people to take them seriously, they had to mask their identities. “If they had just looked like UK records, I don’t think people would have taken us seriously. We said, ‘Let’s disassociate ourselves from the UK’,” remembers Steven. “The UK was making hardcore music and there was a lot of bleep stuff, but not really proper techno. That’s why we packaged it to look like an import. We used aliases to make it seem like there was a lot more to it than just two blokes from East London.”

Michael agrees: “We never said we were from Detroit, but we also did not attempt to correct the rumours that began. We thought it was quite funny. Everyone involved, from the cut to the pressing to the distribution was in the UK and we didn’t try to hide any of that. The buyers in the shops knew it was not from the US, as it didn’t come from importers, it came from the UK distributors, but those distributors did their best to keep the prices high I’m sure. At the time, we were fed up with white labels and throwaway releases. We wanted to be more like the labels that we worshipped coming out of America, we just wanted to create something that we thought was cool and looked like you would want to collect it, just as we collected all of the American imports.”

Along with releases by fellow UK techno producers Stasis (Steve Pickton) and Future/Past (Kirk Degiorgio), B12 Records was an outlet for B12’s early classic ‘Space Age’, ‘Musicology’ and ‘Hall of Mirrors’ EPs. Tunes such as ‘Obsessed’ (included on Electro-Soma), with its infectious, molten chrome bassline, polyrhythmic percussion and airy 313 chords, spun the spotlight on B12 as creators of deep, layered dance music, while the eerie strings and acid of ‘Metropolis’ made them popular among clubbers and armchair ravers alike.

Impressed by the early EPs, Warp Records got in touch, and invited the duo to an informal meeting with other electronic music producers at a London pub. “We had a fax come through that said, ‘We’re having a meeting for electronic music people.’ It was at a pub in Shepherd’s Bush,” Steven remembers. “A few of our peers were invited - Black Dog were invited. I think Kirk Degiorgio was invited. Everyone was sitting there looking full of their own self-importance, as musos tend to do. Then this guy sat next to us and said, ‘Are you B12?’ It was [late Warp Records label head] Rob Mitchell. He said, ‘I love your stuff, I want to release it’. We said, ‘What do you mean you want to release it?’ All we knew about was pressing records and selling them off the back of vans.”

Cuts such as ‘Hall of Mirrors’ with its emotive, drifting ice floe pads and sinuous electric worm bassline, fit snugly into the Detroit techno sound signature.

"The core of this tune was made in a day but it took two months to mix down and sequence as we were never happy with it. The bassline was played in one take on a DX 100 with a broken key. In addition, it was constantly changing due to a phenomena of one of our broken DX 100s - notes would be randomly dropped when it was being played over midi." It was originally issued as title track of the Hall Of Mirrors 12” EP by Musicology on B12 Records in 1992.

‘Mondrin’ sounds like it has a touch of Sheffield bleep, of the kind LFO and Nightmares On Wax had recently popularised on the label. According to Steven, their source of inspiration for this track was quite different: “It’s a tribute to Larry Heard,” he says. “We used to listen to a lot of Larry Heard, Mr Fingers. We loved that as much as we loved the Detroit stuff. He was up there at the same level.”

Steve turned up at this studio with some amazing chords he probably made in his sleep the day before, added some weirdly FXed crazy synth pattern over the top and the following day this unique track was finished. We totally love Larry Heard and this is our tribute to him. I remember very well Mike playing the crazy top line riff – he was all fingers and thumbs and arms muddled in knots.

Though much of B12’s work tends towards 4/4 beats and club material, several tracks on Electro-Soma suggest an appreciation for more horizontal sounds. The weightless float of ‘Soundtrack of Space’ is pure ambient, a synth odyssey into the stars, while ‘Static Emotion’ is a beatless excursion into melodic bleeps and squeaks. “This has always been a bit of a theme with us, this label ambient,” Steven says. “I don’t think we are. ‘Soundtrack of Space’ was made because I remember Rob saying we needed an opening track for Electro-Soma. We didn’t know what ambient music even was. ”

Though much of B12’s work tends towards 4/4 beats and club material, several tracks on Electro-Soma suggest an appreciation for more horizontal sounds. The weightless float of ‘Soundtrack of Space’ is pure ambient, a synth odyssey into the stars, while ‘Static Emotion’ is a beatless excursion into melodic bleeps and squeaks.

“This has always been a bit of a theme with us, this label ambient,” Steven says. “I don’t think we are. ‘Soundtrack of Space’ was made because I remember Rob saying we needed an opening track for Electro-Soma. We didn’t know what ambient music even was.”From memory, we think he loved our EP track “Soundtrack Of A Strange Er” and was feeling inspired. This track was made in one night ready for mastering the next day at the cut.

‘Telefone 529’ (originally from the 1991 ‘Musicology’ EP), also on Electro-Soma, is a more familiar IDM cut that could have come from an early Aphex Twin record or Autechre’s Incunabula, with its hip-hop beat, liquid alloy bass, synth filter sweeps and phone dialling samples.

An S900 with 2MB of storage, a DX 100, a dark grey office telephone, a Shure DJ microphone and the speaking clock. We tried for quite some time to get a decent sample of the speaking clock by holding a broken Shure microphone to the telephone receiver. It just happened to be 8:55 when we got a decent one. The studio was so cold at times but our two Akai S900 samplers generated some serious heat as they were mounted in an upturned filing cabinet with the drawers removed.

“Why the music has lasted so well can only be because of the care and attention that was put into it,” Michael says. “We are incredibly happy that our music has endured, because at the time we revolted against the throwaway white label fashion. We wanted to create something that people would care about in years to come, and it seems they do. Unlike many generations before, the current generation of dance music lovers is more or less still listening to the same electronic music we were, so many of the same elements are still there. Pop music today is now sampling house music from the ’80s and dance music is now pop music. It just goes to prove how influential all house and techno music from this era was. Not just ours. We are just privileged to have a part in it.”

B12 is still very much operational today, with Steven producing solo material recently for labels including Central Processing Unit, Soma and Delsin, and running his own Firescope label. He is still in London, while Michael lives in Dresden, Germany. Lately, they’ve been producing again together. There’s a new appetite for their music. It seems that the rest of the world may have caught up to B12’s futuristic way of thinking. Kirk Degiorgio thinks so. “That cleaner sound took a back seat to the more grungy breakbeat and hard techno sounds of the ’90s, but the last 18 months has seen renewed interest and reappraisal. I think mostly because it’s a sound that is not easy to make, with lots of complex harmonic and melodic content and skillful mix technique, so great tracks in that vein tend to be quite rare. It seems a new generation are beginning to appreciate that skill and uniqueness.”