Pitch Black: The 13th Floor Interview

The 13th Floor’s Tim Gruar talks to Paddy Free of Pitch Black about their new album, Filtered Senses:

Celebrating 20 years in the music business, Pitch Black, have been labelled the ‘godfathers of Kiwi electronica’. This month, nine year’s after their last release they finally drop their fifth studio album, Filtered Senses and sees them adopting a completely different working method – one they’ve dubbed ‘remote-control’.  With one in London since 2012 and the other temporarily based in New York, the album was written by swapping files over the web, with an intensive two week mixing session together at a studio in Hackney to finish the job. Tim Gruar decided to Skype one half of the duo, Paddy Free, recently to find out more about all this. 

I’m on my second coffee of the morning when I dial in. So is Paddy, actually, as I catch him putting down his evening mug and re-positioning his smartphone closer to the WI-FI.  He still has his trademark shocking red hair, framed by a halo of late afternoon sun and the outline of a wicker bookcase at the back of his Airbnb apartment.  Apparently it’s very common in the Big Apple to rent these through University contacts.

Currently in Manhattan’s East Village, where the mid-summer heat can get up to 42 degrees, Paddy’s there to support his partner choreographer Louise Potiki Bryant, who recently won the Harriet Friedlander Residency award. Supported by the Arts Foundation, the Harriet Friedlander Residency sends an artist to New York for as long as $80,000 will last them. Harriet Friedlander was a dedicated supporter of the arts, he tells me. She also loved New York and believed that any young artist exposed to the city would learn and grow in unimaginable ways. This prestigious award has previously gone to film maker Florian Habicht, playwright and actor Arthur Meek and multimedia artist Seung Yul Oh.

Manhattan is a surreal place sometimes, he says. “Just today, we passed a film set with cops shooting, guys with FBI jackets. You know – your typical cop drama.  Then I turn on the TV and there’s shootings in schools and such.”  So on the streets there’s the fiction and on TV there’s the reality?  “Crazy, backwards.  And the Trump Show is just yet another level!  It’s such a long way from Piha, where I used to live for so long.”

True, that. So I can’t help asking about how the landscape shapes his creativity.  Even in its earliest days Pitch Black’s music came from the New Zealand environment, particularly the beaches and the bush around Christchurch, Nelson and Takaka.  “Yeah.  That scenery played a big part in our early albums and our approach to EDM.  Where I am now couldn’t be further from where we started.”

Mike Hodgson and Paddy Free first met at a party in 1996 and started swapping rough files backwards and forwards. After a bunch of singles, they released their debut album, Futureproof, in September 1999 to much critical acclaim.  Despite any marketing it still rose to the top of the New Zealand electronic charts. The single The Gatherer was an organic mix of dub and harsher electro clash.  Their very first gig at Takaka’s infamous Gathering music festival built their reputation of unique genre-bending brand of live electronica.

Their second album, Electronomicon, came out a year later.  It led to a 30-date tour of New Zealand and Australia and spawned remix projects, featuring mixes by International Observer, Epsilon Blue and Downtown Brown.  Their third album, Ape to Angel (2004), also did well helping them to gain traction on the American and European tour circuit.

Their Ape to Angel tour was their largest to date – 42 shows internationally plus a series of remix projects: Halfway: between Ape and Angel (Australasia) and Frequencies Fall (Europe/America).

Their last studio album was Rude Mechanicals, was released in 2007: coming out Downunder on the duo’s own label, Remote Recordings; on Wakyo in Japan; and on Dubmission Records elsewhere.  Possibly their most accessible album to date, it ranges from downtempo dubs and ambient soundscapes to trancefloor grooves and drum’n’bass, and was lauded by Q Magazine as “the sound of the future”!  But aside from a remix collection, Rhythm, Sound and Movement (2009), they’ve been relatively silent until now.

As individuals, both have very different approaches to music. Paddy is a manic groove-merchant – doing it for the crowd. “Mike’s more the dark dub-meister.  He does it to the crowd!  It’s a good example of how we work, we go from A- B, either Mike’s on the controls and I’m on the couch, listening or it’s me on the controls.”

When I ask, Paddy says he goes to the occasion club in NY but he’s not a huge fan. To him it’s too much like being a work.  He likes to separate music from leisure.  “I just keep analyzing dance music when I hear it and thinking about what I can use and how.  So I have to separate myself from it during my down time.”

This month Pitch Black released a new studio album, Filtered Senses, 9 years on and hot on the heels of the single Invisible Chatter. Tracer fire after radio silence?  “Naw!  It’s not like we’ve been totally separated.”  The pair might’ve been living in different cities but they’ve kept the lines of communication open.  They’ve also working on material for a range of solo artists and producers.  Paddy recently collaborated with Moana & the Tribe and Nga Tae on a collection (called in dub), whilst Mike has been producing and remixing under his solo moniker: Misled Convoy.

Paddy says that despite the globetrotting they were able to work up samples to move backwards and forward across the wires. “We had about 18 months of mediocrity before it came together.  We’d throw ideas at the wall to see what really sticks.  Most would just evaporate.  Whatever minerals are calcified became the sea crystals where the magic happens.”

 Invisible Chatter is the first indication that this album is a little bit different from earlier releases. Elements of the duo’s style still remains, though. The tune feels familiar, mixing digeridoos, bop techno and dark mid 90’s bass lines with dub overtones.  Paddy reckons the music is more “graphite than black sands” this time, reflecting their relocations to big cities.  Earlier music had more of a feeling of freedom and beach and sea.  “It came about by virtue of low population because I was living in Piha, which is more remote and windswept than the built up metropolis.  This album is less organic I guess.  Every song is self-contained like a room in an apartment.”  All appropriate, given that with the exception of a two-week stint at Mike’s home studio in Hackney, all the music came together by swapping and refining tracks over email and Dropbox.

The tracks vary from the ambient wash of A Great Silence is Spreading to the stomping Pixel Dust, and virtually everything else between.  Having made music for both Cinema (including Whale Rider) and the dancefloor it’s no surprise that there’s a real sense of drama – Paddy calls it psychedelic stereo. To flesh out the album, they brought in Londoner Alison Evelyn, who Mike met at his regular a vinyl nights. Her contemplative and observational words merged beautifully into the Pitch Black sound.  “I like to sample lots of speech fragments, like we do on Pixel Perfect.  So she works perfectly in this way.”

Paddy admits that making an album in this fragmented, isolated collaboration has been something of a challenge at times. “Like separate brushstrokes on a painting, one email command at a time.”  The Apple Mac is still his weapon of choice, although he misses the tactile nature of a keyboard and is looking forward to getting out on the road when the time comes. “I still miss the real physical connection to beats.  I have lots of tambourines, shakers, drums and stuff.  I guess I’m a beat maker, but at heart also a bit of a frustrated percussionist.”

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