Teenage breakers put in a headspin by the exquisite frequencies of the Belville boy wonders (May, Atkins & Saunderson), post-disco kids too young to club but poised to catch Acid’s cusp, the formative years of Plaid brothers Ed Handley and Andy Turner stick closely to the script of the anyone involved in the UK’s electronica’s evolution. But as those two-thirds responsible for the seminal signals and sovereign electronics of Black Dog with ex-partner Ken Downie as well as fashioning Plaid, Ed and Andy’s audio-couture has always tailored techno to a cutting edge design. With their softly spoken demeanour, quietly focused air and youthful appearance, it’s easy to forget the influence they’ve exerted, though their easy company and gentle banter reinforces the sense of indelible history.
“Ed had responded to an advert placed by Ken looking for a keyboard player to work on acid house music and then some time later I got a call out of the blue from Ed to join them,” says Andy, relating the origins of their creative chemistry. “I’ve never been able to establish why. I think it’s probably because I had a car and they needed someone to drive them around,” he deadpans. “Sitting in the studio with Ken was getting a bit intense,” recalls Ed. “I needed something to dissipate the energy. Andy could’ve just been a plant.”
So, just a sticks throw from East London’s Isle Of Dogs, Ed, Andy and Ken became a gestalt entity, not a beast with two backs but a hound with three headz, working as an autonomous collective on fold and flow masterpieces that ripped up techno’s rulebook and turned its pages into elegant origami. Taking their name from that ancient spectre of doom ‘n’ depression, ancestral dread and bad magic, they enshrined their activities in every esoteric ‘ology going – Egyptology, numerology, cryptology – shunning soul-stealing photoshoots and stonewalling the media. Eventually, the hard-line dogma and card-carrying recluse rep got too much for Ed and Andy, who were itching to take the dog out on live dates.
By 95 the road had run out at Mile End and Ed ‘n’ Andy left to pursue the parallel Plaid career they’d activated with their 91 debut album Mbuki Mvuki. Plaid’s fabric was always going to be more homespun than Downie’s heretical hoodoo, but Ed and Andy decided to go public in a big way, slipping off the leash for a globetrotting tour with Icelandic dynamo chanteuse Bjork and granting their first interviews. “We’ve tried to be a bit more open since the split,” says Andy, though it’s hard to perceive how they could have been any less enigmatic.
Broadcast from The Bubble, the North London studio/retreat Plaid built from scratch after the split swallowed up all their gear, the post-separation album Not For Threes was dogged by break-up blues. The darkside title, copped from Accident & Emergency worker jargon for patients not be revived in the event of death, hinted at their unease and contends that Plaid could’ve been content to let their career expire. Evading the entropy that threatened to engulf their fragile ecology, Plaid employed the vocal coaxing of old allies Nicolette and Bjork, planet-sized personalities rounded enough to plug the holes in Ed and Andy’s confidence.
“After we finished Not For Threes, we thought that it was almost too complex,” says Andy. “Some of our favourite music that we’ve written was on Bytes and that was incredibly simple and minimal. There’s a real beauty in that simplicity.” From the difficult 2nd album to an E-Z third, Rest Proof Clockwork proved Plaid’s real resuscitation. Its title taken from the inscription on a toy submarine whose anti-oxidant properties had been misspelled by its Far-Eastern manufacturers, Rest Proof… proved Plaid hadn’t gone rusty, it’s sanguine sonics alternating between bouncing baby boisterousness and grown-up sobriety, sino-exotica and digital gamelan, wonky hip hop and Tex-Mex melodrama. The carefree vibe exuded by tracks like Dang Spot, retro-fitted with bouncy real-time drums and a riff ripped from theme of Schools programme detailing domestic dangers to pre-pubescent students display a freewheeling anima compounded by the monkey punk antics of Kid Acne’s sleeve art. They’re aware that their screwball logic sets them against the tide of techno-austerity. “Joyous music in general sounds quite naive to western ears, ‘cause we’re such a cynical bunch. Any expression of overt happiness seems to be framed as “they don’t know how it is, in the real world,” Andy laments. “That’s a very sad state to have reached.” “I’m just not obsessed enough with originality or new technology,” Ed claims. “I don’t think everything has to break new ground. We’re not frontiersmen.”
The release of Trainer, a compilation of Plaid’s rarest, oldest material, may just refute Ed’s assertion. A grab bag of old school Plaid, Trainer tracks the long-lost releases Ed and Andy used to tone their tonal technique and nourish their studio muscle into a considerable body of work. These Ltd Ed 12”s (issued under a multiplex of aliases and alter egos from Balil to Aytpic) soon became subject to the phantom economics of the black (plastic) market, the target for vinyl speculators shelling out silly shekels for slices of shellac held in devotional awe by the technocenti. “A lot of our material is so incredibly expensive, it seems a bit of rip-off to make people search for it at that price,” says Andy detailing reasoning behind the retrospective. “You’ve got to stand by your music, otherwise you shouldn’t put it out in the first place,” he states. “If you’re just trading off mysterious music that nobody’s ever heard, that just bollocks really. We’ve never been into that.”
Now notorious for the dilated price tag of original copies, Trainer liberates Plaid’s mythical Mbuki Mvuki and it’s much lauded Latin-tech shakedown Scoobs In Columbia from collectors item status. Surprisingly skeletal, Mbuki Mvuki casts the alien syncopation and sonic sophistication of subsequent material into sharp relief. “The first album sounds really crude,” admits Ed. “But there’s something in that crudeness I really like.” In fact, it’s aesthetic ruffness proved that the Plaid plan could play to crowds outside their natural constituency - immediate enough to be rinsed out by hardcore heads seeking to incite rave into the breakbeat era, while Scoobs...’ contagious outbreak of Rio fever was spiced with enough salsa flavour to appeal to the West 10 massive.
Curated chronologically, Trainer goes on to plot how Plaid developed into techno’s biggest teases: their trick of withholding melody until the record’s final stretch for the compulsive click of the run-out groove to steal it away too soon goosebumps you on every play. Listen to the tail-end of Angry Dolphin, whose poignant piano motif, trilling like an abandoned Tin Pan Alley Joanna surfaces from an erratic schematic of clatterfunk rhythms and breakbeat balletics to play pizzicato on your heartstrings. Or Tura’s Reishi, a rollerderby of discodelic pulses and trap drum beats apprehended by midnight synths that saturate the track in dewy-pupiled sadness. “The melodic aspect was always really upfront, that’s what made it different for the time,” says Ed. “It was because we loved the Detroit sound. So it was a small step on from that.” The ecstatic peace of Balil’s soaring Norte Route, released on first-waver Carl Craig’s Planet E label in 92, showed Ed and Andy’s will to mutate the motor city’s modular dons was crossed with a hardwired harmonic dexterity that washed everything in deep blue. “The older stuff sounds melancholy because we were melancholy,” confirms Ed. “We were doing other jobs and there was definitely more of a sense of struggle and doom going down. We were always fighting to finish tracks. Now the struggle’s become a lot more subtle. They’re more internal or psychological struggles, whereas before it was very physical things you were battling against – time, paying the rent – the big things.”
The re-acquaintance with their back cat has reminded Plaid how much they miss the red-eyed confinement of the studio, the desperate concentration imposed by the need to beat the clock, sensing that the spacious nature of their music was never eclipsed by the urgency of it’s creation. “We’d like to get back to the stage where we would write and mix down a track in a day,” confesses Andy. “Just trying to capture the atmosphere rather than going back to a track day after day and finding harder to recreate the original feeling. For the next album we’re trying to spend a little time assembling sounds in advance so the writing is fairly swift.” With this flash-fry approach it’s likely that any new material will continue to cater to a headfood recipe that’s more cerebral salad than philosophical stodge. “It’s like preparing a meal and cutting up all the vegetables first to make the cooking process quicker. Hopefully everything will taste really fresh.”