Vintage IDM and electro with a modern ear.
Laura Sparrow was always a bit different from the other artists who sprouted during Vancouver's recent purple patch. When her peers preferred hazy, laid-back house, Sparrow reached for old-school techno, pearly IDM and effervescent electro. Her productions followed suit: early records like Maligne Range and Heliacal Rising found an atmospheric middle ground between old IDM and electro. A string of newer releases on her own label and Wania—made in collaboration with DJ Sotofett and E-GZR—expanded her sound in line with the wild rhythms of what she DJs, part of a burst of creativity sparked by a relocation to Europe.
Sparrow is both an excellent producer and a next-level DJ. See her play and you might not recognize any of the tracks unless you're a student of '90s and early '00s IDM. You might not even be able to tell what era they're from. Thanks in part to her formative years in Vancouver, a city where older electronic records are much easier to find than any newer dance music, Sparrow has become an expert in long-forgotten sounds.
Her RA podcast features plenty of familiar names taking less familiar tacks, such as Oliver Ho in tribal mode from 2000 or Thomas Melchior and Tim Hutton collaborating as Vulva on Rephlex in 1994. Tracks like these are mixed in with her own unreleased tunes, creating a decades-spanning dialogue that brings out the futurism of the old records she loves, as well as highlighting the emotion and melody of dance music from this period. Instead of evoking nostalgia, Sparrow has a way of making forgotten and sometimes unfashionable dance records from the past feel as exciting and new as anything coming out today. She's a one-of-a-kind DJ because of it.
What have you been up to recently?
Besides relocating to Europe, which comes with endless changes, I have been enjoying playing in the incredible amount of underground clubs here. This is the exact opposite to the situation in the North American scene, which has some great spots, but they are few and far between.
Crypto Stock, my newest 12-inch with E-GZR, was released this month on WANIA. It features two cuts in the vein of classic electro, and is intended to foreshadow the next stage of our collaboration. We have worked together much in the past especially on the latest release on my own LNS label, Recons One, and our styles meld well for this type of machine-funk.
Where and how did you record this mix?
With two Technics 1200s as always, a Pioneer DJM-600 (a very underrated mixer!) and, this time, also a CDJ because I wanted to include my own un(but soon to be)released music.
Can you tell us about the idea behind the mix?
Almost all of the tracks I have overlooked or neglected playing in recent times. This kept it an interesting project for myself. None are obvious hits and they are almost all inexpensive secondhand records! I favoured some classic artists who have not experienced the hype and repress revival yet. Oliver Ho has some wonderful tribal techno records with plenty of stick-out elements. Stephen Brown, another UK techno producer, made some of my all-time favourite Djax-Up-Beats releases, with incredible melody and deepness. Vulva only made a handful of releases but to me they are some of the more interesting and quirky IDM and techno available.
I never plan my sets that I play out—too many variables can get in the way—but it is fun to do so when you are recording a mix for these sort of platforms. I wanted every blend to create an interesting moment, and give something to those who are paying particular attention to detail! It's deep but also quite clubby, in contrast to more eclectic mixes I've generally done for online listening. It felt refreshing to go slightly straight.
You're known for playing a lot of older techno, electro and IDM—where does your love for this era come from?
Those genres in their prime years can have a complexity that appeals to me. While minimal music can also be beautiful, I have always been attracted to genres with something 'more'—that can be more melody, more changes or more intricacies. New music that has been influenced by these styles can often borrow the most basic sound and strip it to the bone to a degree where I can find it boring. When tracks only have the 'currently accepted' elements, they lack those stick-out parts found in much old (more crafted) music. These can be elements that at first listen could come across as an unnecessary bridge, break, solo, theme change, etc., but obviously the contrast these apply made the music much more interesting for me. Many know this from disco music, where there is a part of the track that the dance community removes with their disco edits because it's too long, funny or challenging. In a lot of Dan Curtin tracks the music can suddenly change almost entirely away from the catchy main theme. If it didn't in the end would it be as interesting or good?
One contributing reason why some older music of these styles managed to reach higher levels may have been by engaging more people in the process, rather than the solo production style that is currently common. I am nowhere near the level of production that I would like to achieve, but I will be the first to tell you that I will take help and additions from more experienced producers and musicians. E-GZR and DJ Sotofett have many times mixed, edited and given a point of view which has been essential in advancing my music.
That being said, being a fan of the above genres stacks the decks heavily in the past simply because there is a lot more music to choose from, and it is much easier to cherry-pick, as the years give us some perspective to narrow our selection. But how I discovered this music initially comes from when I started seriously collecting records. I now live in Europe, but for the ten years I spent in Vancouver my favourite record store (and a great place for underground dance music) was Beat Street. Canada has a small underground dance music scene so new records aren't that available presently, unless you're willing to pay shipping prices from online stores abroad. Availability also shaped my taste like it does for many!
It may not be forward-thinking to live in a perpetual state of musical nostalgia, but with the recent (industrialized) dominance of CDJs, to me, much of the music consumed and executed strictly digitally can have a throwaway quality and is even less forward-thinking, especially since it is many times collected through mindless file-sharing. By comparison even a bootleg record from the past seems respectful, at least requiring some effort and vision. The extreme advantages of digital media are not necessary to inform anyone about, but in this case I am happy to remain in the 'past' as I prefer the sensitivity and rawness of selecting and playing vinyl.
You were an important part of Vancouver's dance music scene amidst the recent wave of house and techno artists in the last few years. Do you think the city has left any imprint on your production or DJing styles?
Unlike Europe, Vancouver's underground dance scene tended to shun clubs and run events mainly in alternative spaces. This was much because of restrictive hours and the focus of legitimate clubs on more mainstream music, creating limited possibilities resource-wise. If we had touring underground DJs, they were mainly from Detroit or other significant US cities. These appearances were many times created by New Forms Festival, organized in part by Scott W. who I ran nights with, and is a really great old-school DJ.
Given that my early exposure to 'professional' DJs were predominantly Americans, I suppose it is not very surprising that I have adopted much of that music and style for myself. There was much use of vinyl in these sets and also a very funky approach in general which I find contrasts European techno culture with its very lengthy club nights and linear style.
On the production side, the sound of the city's dance music is also strongly linked to the fact that hardware equipment is widely available. This has created a strong culture aided by friends and local gear specialists, including Cloudface and Richard Smith, who have been instrumental in advising and making many studios actually work. So of course my own music is also heavily influenced by equipment.
But I do try and set myself apart from Vancouver's recent style of dance music. It tends to be very laid-back, perhaps in part because it is one of the biggest [weed-smoking] cities in North America. While listening to mellow music can be great, and I am definitely also infected by the pad disease, the aim for my own production is to be less lo-fi, tougher, and more complex. The hardware-only approach my initial releases were created with made this challenging, but now I use the computer extensively along with gear. This has broadened my potential outcomes, and moved a little farther from the 'Vancouver sound.'
What are you up to next?
Late spring will see the release of Recons Two, another six-track EP on my own LNS label, which will be the home for much of my solo productions. Also there is an upcoming remix of Francis Harris on his label Kingdoms, which gave me a chance to work with more of a Balearic sound, and my sister Nadia Sparrow, who is a flutist.
The production part of Sputters, a techno and electro double-LP with E-GZR, is finished and will be out on WANIA closer to summer. It is a combination of our individual productions, remixes of one another, as well as music we produced together, blurring the borders between all of these lines.
In between all of this I am happy to be visiting Australia and New Zealand in April for my first tour down under!