Air Lock – A Q&A with Tracing Xircles

In a landscape dominated by perfunctory designs and predetermined forms, electronic club music has rarely progressed beyond its defined borders for most of its existence. Techno, House, Electro, Trance et al remains recognisable with little crossover existing between genres and sub-genres. In the last couple of years however and just before the pandemic, there has been a push for more innovative forms of the music to grow and develop yet again, based on repositioning the barriers that exist between these tired prototypes. Built on the foundations of the archetypes, elements of hardcore, acid, electro and trance have wrestled House and Techno from its stoic institutions in redefining electronic club music for this generation and the next. Tracing Xircles is one of the groups currently contributing to this new drive in electronic club music and their latest record Air Lock shows the group stepping out of muggy basements into a breath of fresh air for a second outing on the Blue Hour record label.

Stark textures drip heavy with melodic riches that cascade down irreverent percussive formations avoiding the strict march of a 4-4 pattern. A dance floor lurks in some opaque distance, coalescing around a collective hallucination of dance music’s past. Wispy threads extend towards musical archetypes contained in acid, hardcore, electro, techno, trance and jungle, where they form a cohesive narrative with their ancesstors, while at the same time living beyond such derivative nomenclature, striving towards a future fusion aesthetic.

Air Lock finds the production and DJ duo of Luke Standing (Blue Hour) and Simon Pilkington (A–JX) re-affirm the palette of 2017’s Gaia’s Requiem and take the sound of that record into new territory with an assemblage of influences informing a rich tapestry of sounds and rhythms that flow through their work. While the title track and Inner Path converge across UK bass foundations and acidic monologues; Transmission and Pressure release call on European traditions, distorting Detroit influences on a record that spans extensive range between Aphex Twin and Jeff Mills.

Luke and Simon grew up in the UK in the aftermath of the early rave scene. They met in Berlin after moving to the German capital a decade ago and solidified a friendship based on shared interest in music. They lost touch for a while and only re-established contact some time later, where they picked up their friendship and started experimenting with music. By that point Luke had established his Blue Hour project, making a name for himself in Techno’s inner sanctum through his work and the label of the same name.

Simon arrived at just the right time in Blue Hour’s history as Luke was searching for a way “to break away from dance floor Techno.” Simon’s colourful musical history from making House and Disco under a now-forgotten alias to being a session musician in China, had bolstered Luke’s ambition to find a way beyond BPM and genre. ”Simon was bringing his musical knowledge to play strings and pads,” while Luke became “the catalyst” for Simon who felt he was “lacking the knowledge and the means” to form a more “cohesive” electronic music project. Their first sessions had turned into their first record Gaia’s Requiem which was quickly followed by a contribution to Steffi and Martyn’s compilation for the Air Texture series.

After another break, which saw Simon move to Barcelona and found Luke in Georgia for a while, they’ve picked up the project again with Air Lock, which finds its way on Blue Hour this week. Besides diversifying the exclusive label, Tracing Xircles is also a DJ duo re-evaluating club music together; the spectre of the eclectic nineties haunting their music and their mixes for a younger audience looking for something new. Calling up the pair from the respective homes in Berlin, we conversed at length about the new record, their shared history and working in the German capital.

There’s quite a shift between Blue Hour and Tracing Xircles. Was there a particular catalyst for going in this direction Luke?

Luke: We didn’t have an idea of what we wanted to do necessarily, but we were inspired by the breakbeat more than the 4-4 stuff that was around. 

Simon: I’ve always ended up writing stuff that is not four to the floor. I found more comfort in rhythms that weren’t classic Techno things as well. Luke was keen to do something different to  the Blue Hour output with more stepping in feeling.

Luke: A lot of the palette is very familiar to the Blue Hour stuff. I love the strings and tend to feature them to death in my own productionsm, but I was very keen for us to take that further. Simon was able to create more complex melodies and harmonies.

That melodic component is very evident in your work. Do you spend a lot of time arranging those pieces?

Simon: No,the first record was mostly improvised. I think what was nice, particularly on lost illusions (Gaia’s Requiem) is that the string arrangement was from one take and has a nice evolution to it, and you don’t usually get that if you world in loops all the time. That’s one of the defining things of that record.

You’re saying that your approach changed somewhat going from Gaia’s Requiem to Air Lock. What was the fundamental reason for that change?

Luke: I would say our influences. We realised our first record was quite ambient sounding, and we wanted something that was a little more towards the dance floor but not quite 4-4. We also started doing some low key DJ sets, playing back to back all night at Farbfehnseher, playing a wide-range of music and a lot more dance floor stuff. We wanted to create something that could be more related to those experiences.

Simon: in the beginning we began with a clean slate and started writing immediately, and over time we really gathered a list of all our influences. That started to shape the project more, and with the DJ sets it became even more cohesive. We shared so much music that we loved from each other, and particularly music from the 90’s. It’s a lot of that side of classic electronica and Techno. We hadn’t really amassed those influences at the point of the first record.

What were some of those influences?

Luke: Various kinds of things from Aphex to old LTJ Bukem mixes; some hardcore stuff; electronica; and even Detroit electro. It’s a mixed bag, and not from key individuals, but rather quite specific.

Was it about creating a fusion between all those different elements?

Simon: Absolutely.

Luke: We feel confident now at what this project represents; to take all those things that we enjoy from different genres, periods and scenes and put them in a big melting pot and regurgitate them.

Simon: We’re from similar parts of the UK and have similar backgrounds. We’ve lived in Berlin for the same amount of time and we are both children of the nineties, but I think we try to put this mix of the music that we hear in the clubs in Berlin with some of the music we grew up with from the rave scene in the UK.

I think that’s why it was so refreshing to hear this, because you get these snapshots of things you recognise, but then it’s also reconstituted in a completely new entity, where things that could sound like they’re from another era, sound newer and more refined.  

Simon: YeahIt’s a tough balancing act to have stuff sound vibey and old-school and still packing a punch.

Luke: I bring this up a lot with my own stuff as Blue Hour too. My process is driven by trying to recreate or connect with some element of nostalgia with the nineties and the rave scene, all the exciting stuff that was going on then, but that I wasn’t able to enjoy because I was way too young. That’s the only way I could experience it today.

It’s interesting that we keep going back to the archetype every so often, even with the developments in this music.

Luke: What it comes down to is that it was a really exciting and special time for electronic music. A lot of new ideas was created, and the atmosphere and climate of society were at a completely different point than where they are now. There was quite an ego-less, free and inclusive feeling of music, and people weren’t necessarily trying to create the perfect thing… they were just letting stuff come out and that resulted in really interesting projects and music.

Simon: These things, when they come back around end up being a pastiche of what they were. Sometimes it’s not even a specific reference, it’s a feeling that in your brain it feels like it’s referencing something so clear and so obvious, but you haven’t even heard that track before, it doesn’t even exist.

I think a lot of that pastiche that happens when the nineties gets revived again, is that it’s not always representative of all the things that that scene had to offer. For example that UK sound is often reduced to that UK bass feeling with big stepping percussive rhythms, whereas for me the UK sound is actually that suburban, cornwall, muddy rave in the countryside kind of vibe. That’s my experience of growing up and that subtlety is loss over time.

When you initially moved to Berlin, was it purely for the sake of music?

Luke: For me it was a 100% about the music. I knew I had to be here. I was coming over here, going to clubs, when I was at university in Bristol (I’m originally from Brighton), and there was nowhere really in Bristol that offered the more refined Techno experience or community.

Did it have an effect on the way Blue hour sounded?

Luke: The sound was quite dark and moody; the generic monochrome Techno that was talked about at that time, but that wasn’t really what I was into. I started the Blue Hour project almost like some kind of protest to what was going on. Having a different sense of freedom and a place where you could feel accepted was more encouraging than anything else, Berlin allows you to take advantage of that feeling.

Simon: Berlin is attracting artists from everywhere. It’s not necessarily that everybody in Berlin would be listening to Berlin artists. It’s such a patient scene which was a big contrast for me coming from the UK. You don’t just go in and throw on a lot of bangers while everybody gets smashed before 4am.

Do you find the atmosphere has changed a bit in Berlin with respect to having room for new DJs and artists to come through?

Luke: I think there’s always going to be room here. It just ends up being a bit more competitive, which ends up driving a bit more progression in some ways.

Simon: I think there was a period with more of a UK influence in the scene here with things like Sub:stance happening at Berghain. To have that in the biggest Techno institution in Germany, that was something fairly new at the time. And that died off after that night ended. It definitely changed a lot.

Luke: It still felt that Berlin was a secret in my peer group. It felt pretty special the first few years. Berghain put a lot of focus on Techno and Berlin became popular as a result of that and other factors. Berlin has a huge expat community now.

Simon: We saw stattbad wedding come and go, and greßmühle come and go. These are very iconic places from the scene that have risen and fallen in that time, so I think in retrospect it definitely was an interesting period and it definitely has changed.

But just to tie back into the project…What’s kind of interesting now is that the scene might localise again if there are more travel restrictions. Sometimes when we played these low-key events like at Farbfernsehen, it felt good to set the mood ourselves for the whole event. And most of the scenes we reference come from these identities that come from a single place rather than a touring scene taken around the world. I think with the touring DJ culture, some of that is lost a little bit.

Farbfenrsehen is not a big room, it’s kind of small. How did you end up playing there and what were your sets like?

Luke: The opportunity came up through a friend who was programming there. It started off as a bit of fun, and we started taking it a bit more seriously and planned it a little bit. It’s a really intimate venue – another one that’s closed down. One of the main things we wanted to do was work through a wide range of BPM and be really flexible about style. That was really a liberating experience for me personally, because at the time I was being booked as Blue Hour I was playing strict, Techno sets.

Simon: There has been quite a push in Berlin to take things faster and harder, but with Tracing Xircles we wanted to bring a different kind of dynamic to the dance floor.

Luke: In Berlin the typical idea of a House or a Techno set is just to have a consistent flow of steady music and vibe throughout. People are a bit afraid of deviating from the path of what’s expected. That’s not necessarily interesting to play or experience as a crowd. We didn’t have any rules.

Simon: I think at the time Luke was into that 90’s hardcore sound with a lot of breaks, and I was playing quite a lot of electro, and we found that jumping between those was an interesting mix as you move from this massive, euphoric, thick textured hardcore tracks to something more stripped back and techy. We found that playing with those different dynamics really opened up the mix to play into different genres.

Is there a relationship between the DJ sets and the music you make, in terms of deconstructing all those influences of Tracing Xircles’s productions into DJ sets?

Luke: I guess so. Our style is a bit of a melting pot. It’s similarly how we approach our DJ sets.

Simon has mentioned there’s more music. Is there anything coming in the immediate future following Air Lock that we should know about?

Luke: Right now it’s only this record, but there are ideas and sketches in place.

Simon: After we’ve had such a disruptive period, the stars haven’t really aligned and now I have a new studio space, and Luke has set-up at home, so we’ve got the means to write again.

And Blue Hour is still very active as a label and a project. Is anything from Tracing Xircles filtering back into that project?

Luke: Definitely, with DJing specifically. Experiencing music on a wider scale, has really helped in how I’m approaching my DJ sets now. It’s encouraged me to be more dynamic and versatile in what I’m playing.

In terms of music production…yeah… The last couple of things, I’ve been using more breakbeats and I think that’s come from when we started doing Tracing Xircles; that was one of the key things I wanted to explore, and now that’s crossing over more into my solo productions.

And that’s trickling down into the label, since you’re releasing the Tracing Xircles and you’re branching out to other artists too?

Luke: Absolutely. I’m not really a purist about being Techno, even though it went through phases of feeling like that. It is still going to be more dance floor focussed, but I’m quite open to what the label can be in the future. I started to explore that a little bit in the last couple of years, and that was informed by me taking the decision to release our first record as Tracing Xircles on the label.