Meat Beat Manifesto’s Jack Dangers Talks New Album ‘Impossible Star’: electronic music pioneer discusses his new, deeply immersive release.
Jack Dangers has been one of the most innovative and influential figures in electronic music, beginning in the late 80’s with his pioneering act Meat Beat Manifesto.
He’s had his fingerprints on a variety of electronic sub-genres, from industrial to ambient to trip-hop, big beat and electronica. But Meat Beat Manifesto’s presence is unique–always ahead of the curve, and never slavish to any one sound. In a sense, he’s his own micro-genre.
Dangers has kept a low profile the past few years. His last full-length album was 2010’s Answers Come In Dreams, one of his most experimental albums to date.
Now Dangers is back with Impossible Star, his latest Meat Beat Manifesto release. It’s a dynamic, deeply layered album that draws upon some of his most iconic sonic elements–dark, evocative and hallucinatory, offering a disquieting sonic tapestry that feels in sync with our tumultuous present.
I recently interviewed Dangers about Impossible Star, his take on the Trump era, his creative process, touring plans for 2018 and more. Enjoy the Q&A below.
First off, I’ve had a chance to listen to the new album and I’ve really enjoyed it. On your website you describe it as “an MC Escher optical illusion which spirals around and around and never seems to end.” Can you talk about those inspirations and what the creative process was like this time around?
Well it’s been stretched out over a longer period of time then my usual records take. So this is the first time I had the luxury of being able to pick songs from a bigger well than usual. I had about 30 songs all done and completed. I mean it could have been a quadruple album or CD or whatever, but I like to keep it down to the normal sort of length.
The last album came out in 2010, and we went on tour in 2011 and had various things happen. So the main difference between this one and the previous album is I had a bigger selection to choose from. As far as the title goes, it’s based off an impossible object. I based it around that optical illusion of a 6 point star–impossible outcomes, impossible things. It’s a never-ending cycle, so I guess I’m preaching to the converted to this point, but here we are.
You also discuss how the album reflects today’s political and cultural climate, which has obviously been exhausting and volatile. You’ve always been fairly outspoken politically, can you really believe where we’re at as a culture right now?
Yeah it can only get worse at this point I think. I mean who knows where we’re going to be three years from now. Who could have ever predicted…like today’s revelation is that Trump was having an affair with a porn star while he was married to his pregnant wife. You know that would have sunk anyone in the past, but now she’s just today’s news story–like what’s going to happen over the weekend? What things is he going to Tweet?
So I don’t know where it’s all going. It’s completely crazy. And then the NRA getting funded by the Russians, it’s unbelievable. So if you’re a Vietnam Net, and you’re wearing your hat, and you got your NRA sticker in your car, I don’t know what you’d be feeling like. Working with the enemy is never a good idea. And they’re definitely the enemy.
But that’s his background…he’s not a politician, as we keep getting reminded. It’s a New York thing–a Brash New York thing. In the past that would have been like, “elitist Manhattan”?
Now that’s flown out the window. The things people used to bitch about, like Romney when he was running, he had a three-tier car park system in his house. And that’s absolutely nothing compared to this guy flying around in his own 747 with his name on the side.
It’s obvious that not any of that lot thought they’d win. It was all just for publicity–a reality TV career is all for publicity. But you know, you work with the Russians anything can happen. So here we are!
Do you think when things are so volatile, that inspires more creativity in artists or does it make it more difficult?
Not when it’s this crazy, it would be like trying to make an album in 1930s Germany. It’s getting to that point where you’re going to get a knock on the door, and you’re going to have to run for the next continent (laughs).
I mean I’ve been here since 1993 but I’m not an American citizen. I still have a British passport so I can zip over the border to Canada. Or really get out-of-the-way and go down to New Zealand (laughs)!
So yeah it’s inspiring in a way to write lyrics and write songs, but then you be doing 12 or 13 songs on the same subject…it gets to the point where the whole thing becomes so abstract that it reflects on what you’re doing.
I suppose it’s like Kafka. He was influenced by the political environment when he was living, and came up with books like Metamorphosis. So who am I to say it’s not inspiring for art? But at the same time it’s soul-destroying.
It seems like the last few MBM albums were more stripped down sonically, but Impossible Star’s deeply layered compositions brings to mind some of your late 90’s work like Subliminal Sandwich and Actual Sounds and Voices, and songs like Acid Again–was that an intentional decision?
Yeah, well The Test EP was basically music that I made videos for, because I made a bunch of videos for Bass Test, Acid Test, Synthesizer Test, so it was all video-based.
So in that sense it would be more stripped down I suppose, because it has a visual to go along with it. In instrumental music it’s like the art of radio play, which still exists in Britain but doesn’t really exist over here anymore. Imagine someone listening to a play on the radio and you have to imagine what’s going on–whereas if you got a visual which is tied to the audio that’s a big difference between just making a music video for song which already exists, or if you’re using the audio and video to make something like video sampling, which we do a lot live.
I always wondered how you construct a track–do the beats always come first, or do you ever build off a sample or other sonic element first? Do you ever hear music in your head so to speak, or does it always start with experimentation?
Yeah I’d say 6 times out of 10 it starts with a beat. I’ve got like a drum machine running and its synched to a synthesizer or something. But not all the time though. Sometimes I’ve worked with beats and build a song and then I take the rhythmic elements out of it and you’re just left with the padded music or bassline.
I did a remix recently for a band called ZN, and I did the same thing with them actually. It started with the beats and stuff because that was what was in the original, and then I took some elements and threw them through 2 tape machines which were working on a big tape loop–and had them like falling over in sounds which created these Eno-esque ambient sounding pads. So it doesn’t always have to start with a beat.
Usually the thing I don’t change would be the bassline, so it’s usually based around more of what the bass is doing.
I also was curious, given your affinity for vintage gear, if that informs your creative process–do you ever start with a decision to use certain equipment to drive the process, or do you just work with what fits the song as you’re working it out?
Yeah that always evolves. Its like you’re sort of 60% there, and then you’ll just get this idea of using a certain instrument like a Martenot and an ARP [that’s always a good combination]. Or a harmonica and a bass-loop. There’s just so many combinations you can come up with.
I use a lot of vocoders as well and I use them in a musical way–you know when you say vocoder you usually think of that Kraftwerk sound, but you can throw anything through them–there’s two channels, you can throw a whale sound through one channel and a gong on the other channel and its gonna come out with a sound that’s never been heard before.
There are several tracks with vocal elements, but they’re fairly subdued with the exception of TMI. It seems that a lot of your 21st century output has differed from your earlier releases which featured more prominent vocals. What lead to a shift to more instrumentals?
It’s not so much moving away from vocals, it’s more about going away from using lyrics. I mean there are vocals on every track on here, the exception the two Musique concrète pieces on there like ONE and Liquidators, but there are vocals on all the other tracks.
So it’s like chucking a vocal through a vocoder, or a couple of vocoders and stacking them so it sounds like you’re doing 20 tracks of harmonies. And then I’ll just be singing or mouthing certain words and maybe going back and adding to it, which is sort of the way I did TMI–I’d do an amorphous vocoder track and go back and add lyrics to it.
I’ve done that in the past as well. So I don’t want to keep on treading the same ground. I didn’t want this to be weighed down by a lot of lyrics for that reason. So that’s why its more sparse. But there’s probably more vocals on this album then on the last one.
You were speaking about how your last EP was very tied into your videos, and you’ve always been very creative in how you link visuals to your music, and your video for Lurker is no exception. What was the inspiration for the video, and do you have plans for additional videos?
I’m actually doing a 12 inch remix of Synthesizer Teste, which is on the album and there’s a video for that as well. I bases the video around this system called Photo Fit, which was an old British system that police forces would use. Over here you would call an identikit.
You do a sketch of someone over here of a suspect, where in Britain they were using real photographs of mug shots from criminals. And they didn’t use just one piece from each mug shot…they’d use like the eyes and the nose, or the mouth, or certain hairstyles, and it’s all in this one very big kit…and you slip them into this little screen so that it puts it all into one picture.
They’re actually very hard to find, because it’s a system they phased out in the 70s. Now it’s all computerized, although over here people still do sketches…whereas most of countries use the computer techniques to do that now.
But what I like about the old system, (which was invented by this Canadian criminalist named Jacques Penri), he invented this game in the 1920s called Physogs, which used the same principle. You would roll the dice and you’d come up with this weird-looking character–and I actually used that game as well.
Towards the end of the video there’s a break and it goes into like more sepia older-looking 1920s people, so what I did with that, was I had to take pictures of every single element and then animate them like you saw in the video.
What I like about it, is this sort of fallible system, because they never had really great success with it. And I did another video called Agelast which was based around the American system of pencil drawn faces.
So to me it was just a cool visual element which would make an interesting video. Plus if you were growing up in Britain in the 1970’s you would have definitely seen some of these composites which would been in the paper when they were tracking down the Yorkshire Ripper–that was a famous one, and it actually looked 99% accurate. Although it didn’t really help in finding him.
So that’s what that’s all about, hence the name Lurker…so it’s all based around that. And you can hear me saying that through a vocoder.
And did that inspire the album cover as well?
Yeah. I grew up seeing that thing on the TV all the time. And its like a nostalgic thing for me to actually find the system for a start, because they were phased out, but I actually found one at a police auction in Texas. As far as I know all the ones in Britain, except for a couple, were all destroyed so it’s a very rare system, which was crying out for someone to make a video.
Any plans for tour to support the album?
Yeah, last year we did some shows here and there…it’s just me and Ben Stokes now when we go on tour. So we should be doing something after the flu season over, so like in April and May we should be doing some dates around the country and hopefully in Europe as well.
Thanks to Jack Dangers for taking time out for this interview. You can order Impossible Star via Amazon below.