Causing Ructions: In the studio with Matador

There was a time when Dublin’s Harcourt Street could claim to be Ireland’s techno hub. And when someone finally gets round to writing a definitive history of Irish dance music, Tripod on the corner of Harcourt Street will get plenty of mentions. From 1993 to 2012, the former train station, with its red-brick arches and stupidly steep stairwell at the back, hosted every big international DJ and every local wannabe — first as the POD, then Redbox, then finally Tripod along with Crawdaddy.

It’s also where Gavin Lynch aka Irish techno producer Matador got his biggest leg-up around four years ago, securing a deal with Richie Hawtin after supporting the Minus label boss. Tripod’s looking shabby enough now though – boarded up, with a couple of bins underneath the sign. As we walk past, Lynch says “It’s a shame, isn’t it? Even from out here. You wouldn’t wanna look inside.”

All’s not lost though – we’re heading down Harcourt Street to the home studio where he wrote and recorded his debut album Ructions, just out this week. And even if sweaty nights with Laurent Garnier or Dave Clarke in the Redbox are ancient history, it’s kinda satisfying to know Lynch has come full circle, back doing his bit — knocking out techno a stone’s throw away from Dublin’s cheesiest clubs, Copper Face Jacks, Krystle and Dicey’s.

The last time I chatted to Lynch was in December 2014 and he’d just moved back from Berlin, with his gear barely out of boxes. A year and a half on, the room has been well and truly converted. He’s now an arm’s length from a rake of synths, drum machines, controllers, boards and a sleek new Neve console he’s well proud of. He jokes that he just goes “between this chair, the bedroom and the airport”, so he had to get it right.

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“Bit of a shame…” Matador outside Tripod on Dublin’s Harcourt Street (photo by Finbarr O’Rourke)

He’s said it before, but Lynch says he’s still acutely influenced by his environment when writing. After he signed with Minus he moved to Berlin, and said his tunes “were a lot darker, it was a cold, dark winter there. But the Berlin music carried me for two years, it done the business, I toured with it, got some No1s in the techno charts”.

He says Ireland is hardly a tropical getaway compared with the German capital, but he got into a different mindset, maybe a homecoming comfort blanket. And even if he’s engrossed in a 12-hour session it’ll be punctuated every five minutes by that ‘ding ding’ from Luas trams right outside his window. Close your eyes and you couldn’t be anywhere else but Dublin.

“Now that I’m back here a lot of the stuff is a lot happier, a lot more positive in parts,” he says. “If it’s January here you’re only getting 6-7 hours of sunlight, but then again, it also works in another way. Say if you look outside and it’s pissing rain, it’s a nice feeling to be in this warm home studio, and it does translate into the music.

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“For the album I obviously needed four or five 4/4 techno tracks, but the more abstract soundtracky stuff, that comes from the different environments I end up in. The downtempo stuff happens when I’m in a dull airport or a train, then it’ll all get happy before a gig, it’ll be a lot more positive, housey. But if it’s after Berghain… well, y’know…”

There’s even a track on Ructions called Harcourt Street – a floaty, jazzy, house jam that’s an immediate left turn from his cavernous 4am bangers we’ve heard in recent years. It’s not a tender ode to his new home or his old haunt up the road, though.

He concedes: “Ah, naming tracks, I usually just pull it out of the air. I look around and it’ll be the first thing I see, even if it’s a hotel. If it wasn’t for that I’d have version 1, version 12, track 6, whatever.” He points out the window saying: “Even the track Stanleys, that’s just a shop out there, I looked out the window and there it was. Then again, It’s a Rollover [track on Play With Me! EP], you know exactly what’s in my head there.

“Sometimes you will get an image out of listening to something naturally, but as soon as there’s a tag put on it, it creates an image and affects the flow, so it’s usually the very last thing I do. If you start a track and call it ‘Banger 999’ you’re setting the tone straight away.”

I reckon the new album title is no happy accident, though. Anyone who’s heard Matador’s EPs or seen him live over the last five years or so will guess why he called it Ructions, and named his new label Rukus. Currently Ireland’s biggest techno export, he’s been releasing timeless, tough, groove-based deep cuts on Aciitone, Perc Trax, Cocoon and Minus since 2007. He’s also got a diary full up with dates at the world’s biggest techno festivals, with Awakenings, Loveland, Tomorrowland and Movement Detroit a few to tick off in the next few months.

Still, he’ll turn a few heads with Ructions. Back when he first got the deal with Minus he locked down for months and sent 14 tracks and Hawtin signed them all, for the EPs Spooks, Kingswing and Zoles. Then Play With Me! Part 1 and 2 was eventually packaged as an album-length double release, but he’s adamant that this is is his first real album, with more dynamism.

As expected, you get rugged, stark techno workouts like Stanleys, Back to Bass, and Klout & Bones, heavy on scuffed percussion, dubby echoes, ping-pong metallic motifs and depth charge basslines. The stuff that’s landed him in the Resident Advisor top 20 live acts four years in a row.

As well as being a springboard for banging out at clubs and festivals, Lynch says he always tries to add “something weird to hang on to” in tracks. While early techno was industrial and primal, Detroit pioneers like Jeff Mills and Robert Hood began to take their militancy inward, with meticulous sound design and hypnotic micro-grooves between the kicks and basslines. Ructions – as with all Matador releases – has plenty of these classic techno abstract wormholes, likely a trait from his training as a sound engineer.

“Less is more, but you have to choose your moments,” he says. “You don’t want to overcomplicate things but I could be sitting here for hours on a loop, something just clicks in my head and the next minute I’m tapping it out. You just have to tune in, and pick and choose all these little elements. Like, listen to Jeff Mills, Plastikman, go back to all that, God is in the detail, it’s all consuming. You need to really focus, not everyone’s out at the weekend on a mad one in a club, they’re listening at home, they notice.”

The first thing listeners will notice this week with Ructions is first track Smoke and Mirrors, which immediately hints at the abstract ambient soundtrack vibe he’s pursuing in the future. And while he’s hardly heading into full-on Derrick Carter or DJ Sneak boompty boomp territory, there’s a definite house direction on at least half of the tracks, with plenty of clipped vocal samples and classic handclaps. Rizzle is another breezy breakbeat electro departure – bobbing along on a fizzy acid bassline, while Strings For Life sounds like a piano-led victory lap as the sun rises at a festival.

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As well as the more positive Dublin vibe, the change of direction was also down to logistics, being invited to play at UK house DJ Jamie Jones’s Paradise parties.

“For me the housey tracks were a no-brainer because I started with Jamie at DC10 in Ibiza last year and that’s totally different than a Minus or Cocoon party,” he says. “I couldn’t consider playing my Minus stuff at these parties. And unlike a DJ who can go out and buy records for a Saturday night, I have to lock myself away, sit here and write my own tunes. A DJ can turn up and think, ‘Oh yeah the vibe is housier here, it’s 4 in the afternoon. I can flick through records and pick and choose’. I’ll have a definite bank of sounds with me. It’s great to improvise but it’s really limited compared to a record collection.

“I’ve actually had the album finished for 6-8 months and there has been a few heads turning when I’ve played the house tracks, but it’s not gonna be a massive shock to anyone really. I think it’s better to take risks without leaving people behind. People don’t want to hear me playing the same stuff forever. If you can mix shit up, why not?

“I’m constantly changing these tunes anyway, I’ve got 60 or 70 different live sets I’ve recorded. I just have to keep listening and picking it apart, and making sure it’s better next time.

“Even last week, I had the Future Music guys in for six hours or so, we were just having a studio day, I was breaking down how I make a track. I ended up losing a part of the session and had to rewrite loads of percussion for it, and it was actually better than the original, it’s kinda got that Spastik [Plastikman track] sound, I’ll be using that. It’s a natural progression. I feel if I stand still I’m bang in trouble. I’ve written another album since Ructions has been done, there’s loads of work done already.”

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Many electronic albums are sold on the back of their features and collaborations, with ‘special guests’ roaring out of press releases in bold all caps, but Lynch has eased off on Ructions. He sings himself on Remember, saying the woozy vocal is down to “some pitch effects and layers and a marathon two-day session in the studio over Christmas”. He adds: “At the end of the track I was trying every synthesiser to get some kind of line but sometimes you just need something natural. I had asked someone I know to do it but I let her down actually – I just sang it as a guide track and it seemed to work.”

He did push for Chicago house legend Felix Da Housecat though, who appears on The Enemy – also the first EP on Rukus. The track could easily slot right beside any of Green Velvet’s classics, with its minimal metallic sheen, glinting lead synth line and Felix’s semi-detached half-rap: “This ain’t no state of mind… this is reality.”

“Felix was actually easy, brilliant,” recalls Lynch. “We shared a car going to Balaton in Hungary and we just had the craic straight away. He was in the studio in summer, in Munich I think, and I sent the track to him. He got back and said, ‘What the fuck do you want me to do with this? There’s too much on it.’ But I just got straight back and said, ‘Ah come on, have a fuckin pop, let’s do it’.

“So 30 minutes later he got back saying what do you think of this? I was in Madrid doing a Vicious magazine party and just dropped it straight on top of the track, and with a bit of EQing I just thought, that’s done. He was happy, I was happy, there was no big two-week back and forth bollox.”

He also had a male and a female vocalist lay down two tracks, with one, Not Enough, given away as a free download, and another one will “surface at some point”. Techno diehards may think a saxophone solo a step too far, but he’s got one recorded, and it’ll get knocked into shape in the future.

Laughing off suggestions it could be seen as his Bob Dylan ‘Judas’ moment, he says: “This guy Chris Engel plays saxophone in a pub off Grafton Street, he is amazing. He had a few hours up here, an afternoon blowing the ears off me. I was sort of chasing [Laurent Garnier’s] The Man With The Red Face buzz. There’s 10 or 12 takes of him running amok, but I need to just leave it for a few months and come back to it. I haven’t worked it out yet. I have played one version live and I never played it again, let’s put it like that…”

The above comment proves Lynch isn’t too precious about the whole thing. And even while he was tweaking and changing the Ructions tracks in the days before release, it’s not some Kanye strive to godlike perfection, more a concession that the music is always morphing and shape-shifting, there’s no definitive piece. “The manager was on to me, joking, saying, ‘No more of this version 6, version 7, just give us the finished WAVs!’ This is right up to the point I’m putting it out,” he says.

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He says he was “exposed very early” to the jetset inner circle buzz, but he’s avoided all the cheeseball trappings. “Within two months on the road with Rich I was in a private jet, drinking this and that, fancy restaurants, all the frills,” he says. “But I was always too concerned about the show that night – y’know I’m starting off opening for Richie Hawtin, so it bypassed me a wee bit. Yeah I had my few drinks and I enjoyed it, but I still enjoy a pint of guinness, or my burger and chips, you know, the simple things do it sometimes.”

He agrees there wasn’t much of a middle period between DJ gigs around Dublin and big league international touring: “Yeah there was no back and forth to the UK trying to get DJ gigs, my middle period was being a chef, and going back to study sound engineering.

“I started when I was about 16 or 17, I had my first show over in Mono, which is now Opium Rooms. It was it was a Sunday evening at half six, playing to four people – three of my mates and a barman, something like that. I had to just DJ with b-sides, if you’re playing to an empty room you can’t be hammering it out.

“I sort of kept it up and kept learning, ended up getting gigs in Tripod, doing support when big DJs were coming over. I’d get two Saturday nights a month. I was asked would I like to support Hawtin and I said yeah, of course. I had just sent him music and he had emailed back and three weeks later I was supporting him. I just got talking to him there and we worked it out. And that was pretty much it.

“What worked for me was I was primarily a producer and that’s what he wanted. He didn’t need a DJ, so I went in as a live act. And because he had been playing my tunes people knew the music already.”

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After years on the circuit, in at the deep end with Hawtin support slots, playing arenas with Sven Vath to 20,000 and his own residency at ENTER In Ibiza, Matador isn’t taking anything for granted. He says he scratches his head sometimes at festivals or big one-off parties: “Like, sometimes I think techno seems as big as pop music sometimes. I’ve seen tens of thousands of people outside somewhere trying to get into one of these one-off techno shows. I’d nearly be thinking, it’s not the Beatles, folks, it’s a couple of lads in there playing tunes.

“There was a massive surge in electronic music with EDM and stuff but I think that’s now passing on to techno. I keep an eye on the Beatport charts. On the general page it’s always been dominated by electro house or commercial house tracks. Some of it’s really cool… Claptone had a No1 for a few months last year. But in the last three months I’ve watched techno tracks dominate the top 10, top 5 top 3 of the overall charts, and that never happened.

“I think people are scraping beyond the surface like we all did. When I started I was listening to hard house, trance, some of the commercial ends. Then you scrape and get to deep house, and scrape even further you hit techno or you can scrape further again to get to way weirder stuff, more abstract stuff.

“I think techno is a classier sort of sound. Very rarely you’ll find a properly cheesy techno track. A lot of times it can be super melodic, look at the Detroit stuff, lots of strings, vocals, dominated by 909s and 808s and weird pad sounds and synths. there’s loads of really good musicality there.”

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Speaking of Detroit and musicality, the day we’re chatting, Jeff Mills has just announced a concert with the RTE Concert Orchestra. For years techno’s leading futurist has been fusing classical and electronic music, along with museum residencies, conceptual art pieces and sci-fi exploration. Sometimes, though, he just relentlessly bangs it out, and the closest Lynch ever came to stage fright was watching Mills.

“I remember at Exit Festival in Serbia. It’s massive, you’re in this fortress, and people are tiered up all sides in the moat of the fortress. So I go to stage left and I spot Jeff Mills and I’m thinking, are they having a fucking laugh? I’m going after Jeff Mills? He’s there on a mad one, 136 bpm, him on the 909, lasers everywhere. What am I supposed to do here? I thought I’d need three minutes of whale music to calm everybody down. I just had to get on with it. The sun was coming up so at least I had that. But that was amazing to watch him.”

Lynch is hoping to bottle some of this raw machine energy for his Rukus label parties, his next level-up in the techno game. And even though he’s chiefly zoned in on the music, he admits there’s a load of branding and plain old head screwed on organisation. Even the cover of Ructions, the bull’s skull in silhouette, had plenty of brainstorming with an eye on marketing.

“We were thinking of an album cover that could be a logo and my manager said, ‘How would you describe yourself in Pictionary?’ So the bull thing came up. I then thought we’d use the filament of those retro light bulbs as the ink. The designers came back to us with different variations, but they were images for the video – but the stills were right on the money, and we had it. It’s very simple, two colours.

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“These are things I’d never think about – an easy logo to reproduce, it sits well on stickers, black T-shirts. That’s why it’s good to have a team to suggest all this shit. Then all of a sudden we’re all coming up with ideas. You’re not aware of it until you realise it’s more than just a platform to release music, that’s where it’s all heading.”

In the meantime, though, Matador is out of the virtual marketing boardroom. He’s just got the first round of positive feedback for Ructions from DJs in his circle like Hawtin, Adam Beyer, the Drumcode crew, Hot Since 82, “and even guys like Danny Tenaglia and Hernan Cattaneo… that was a shock anyway”. He’s also got plenty of Ructions remixes planned before the summer season. He’s just had his last free weekend in Dublin (“just a few drinks in the Button Factory, actually just chatting with mates”) before he’s on it till the end of the year.

His next big one is Movement Detroit, Ibiza, then three parties at Sonar in Barcelona before it’s eight weeks of festivals.

“I’m usually on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. On Monday I lick my wounds and then on Tuesday I’m home in bits, beard hanging off me,” he says.

So if you see a midweek Matador on Harcourt Street clutching a coffee from Stanleys, it’s probably better to give the man some space.

  • Ructions is out now on Matador’s Rukus label. Buy it on Beatport