There’s a cliche of modern dance music as a solitary pursuit — of producers locked in studios fine-tuning DJ tools, hunched over screens, nano-checking every frequency for big-room optimisation.
Irish duo Tinfoil’s visceral analogue techno punches through these boundaries of screen clicks and file>save dynamics, to remind us of the animalistic thrill of machine-tooled electronic music. When Sunil Sharpe and Matt ‘DefeKt’ Flanagan discuss their creative process they’re not recalling dropbox files and emails, but the ripping of wires, dials and mics, and at one point Sunil says of the live show: “When get to the end — all bets are off and we’re gonna crucify you.”
I’ve met Sharpe and Flanagan at the bar in Dublin’s Heuston Station just before the release next week of their debut album On a Roll – one of the most uncompromising Irish records of the year in any genre. Sunil apologises for being “a bit wrecked, it’s Monday”, but I’d like to see them working on 100% battery – they’re on a roll for over an hour, only cutting out for Sunil to catch a train.
After six EPs since 2014, and a live reputation that hovers between nosebleed and transcendence, Sunil says they “wanted to mark the project with something a bit more substantial”. They’ve also avoided the pitfalls of the 74-minute over-egged techno album with stylistic left-turns. On a Roll is 45 minutes of snarling mechanised techno and electro, a singular vision with no wobbles in the road. Matt says there’s a danger of trying to “show a side no one knows… but you’re also showing a side you don’t really do, so maybe it’s not so honest. I wasn’t saying, ‘Sunil we need an ambient track here”. They’re content with a concise document and “a good intro to the whole Tinfoil project”.
Matt adds: “An album is something with more thought about the artwork, or the concepts behind tracks. When you do an EP or a remix it’s quick, you get the EP together, you get it sent off, manufactured, done, and it’s out there. This was a longer process obviously, but it was an eye-opener, wasn’t it?
“Yeah of course. And tying stuff together… we didn’t plan to make an album, most of the music comes from practice jams in late 2016, early 2017, for a handful of gigs around then. But because it was all done in a short length of time there’s a unified feel to the tracks.”
The unflinching sound of On a Roll shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s followed electronic music in Ireland over the last 10-15 years, with the pair bypassing every fad and trend that turns up. “There’s nothing on our Discogs that lies too much,” Matt points out.
Sharpe is a real underground techno kingpin, with his hard-edge productions, rapid-fire vinyl DJ sets that can run up to six hours, and his RTE Radio slots taking in interviews with local heroes and legends such as Surgeon and Jeff Mills. And his 2fm/YouTube series Quarterly Crate is the only discerning round-up of crucial vinyl any DJ needs. DefeKt’s modular synth explorations has led to some of the most essential electro and acid of the last decade, with a wired-up live show that turns into shattered sci-fi techno – check his summer 2016 Boiler Room set from Hangar in Dublin.
“It’s a complete mash-up of the two of us,” Matt says. “If you listened to these tracks and broke them into their component parts you have the best of electro and the best of techno. But we rub heads, I’m more technical, he’s more visceral. He’s from Dublin, I’m from Laois, and there’s actually components from the two places within the album, even if they’re kinda hidden.”
Sunil adds: “I think me and Matt visualise music differently, but we feel techno in a very primal kind of way. And I don’t want to over-conceptualise this but we really wanted to have something that sounded Irish, in the names of the tracks or a couple of bits of field recordings, you can hear it’s very distinctly Irish.”
Both Roads to Triogue references the river in Laois, while The Wolves of Hellfire has turned into a fierce tribute to the Dublin Mountains’ infamous 18th century den of occultist debauchery, the Hell Fire Club, with a new on-location video. Even the track Every Saturday Night throws you off with its intro of a wizened aul’ Dub recalling his childhood in the ’50s getting washed with carbolic soap in a horse trough. These touches, and field recordings used as “seasoning” throughout the album, back up the pair’s claim that it’s a distinctly Irish record. And is it really such a hot take these days to consider techno a form of folk music? Electronic music’s days as a folk devil in society are long over – for instance Sunil is waiting on a train to go and play banging techno in Galway on a Monday night.
“Listen, what about fiddle music,” Sunil says. “I was in a taxi a while ago and there was some diddly-eye music on the radio and I was thinking to myself, you know what, that is just as loopy as any techno track.
“In Ireland we’re great at celebrating tradition and the past. It’s great that we have a tradition for dance and for our singers, but we tend not to focus so much on what’s here right now. Electronic music is pretty much our mainstream now – look at our festival line-ups. You know, at some point our music will be ‘old Irish music’ as well. We think it’s important to put out an album and mark a point in time.”
They’ve already said they try not to over-conceptualise things with Tinfoil, and the whole project hinges on intuition, improvisation and reaction. “Number one, when we’re making music together we’re not actually thinking,” says Sunil. “This is a great vehicle for both of us to not to think.”
Matt recalls the pair’s initial ‘click’ moment as the simplest transition possible: “Sunil used to come over to the house and we’d talk about records or whatever. I was jamming one day making harder techno stuff and he just decided to mess around on one of the synths and we recorded it. It sounds fake but that’s simply how it started, neither of us would’ve made those tracks on our own.” This is still their head-to-head method, with “98 per cent of what you hear on the record coming from us improvising in the studio, on the spot”.
Matt adds: “A funny thing about duos is that some acts really want to be pissed off and want to have that punk attitude and all this conflict, but instead we naturally just surprise each other, like sometimes I’ll be thinking, what the fuck is he doing?”
Matt’s biggest wtf studio moment came when Sunil first grabbed the mic and started recording vocals – not in any considered verse/chorus sense, but a series of verbal outbursts that have made it onto the album. These range from abstract shrieks buried under twisted acid on Multi-Domination, to the feral barks on the serrated electro of album closer Resting Point, which turns into a metallic brain-wrong as dark as anything locked in the Aphex dungeon.
Matt recalls: “When we were making that track we were literally losing the plot, we were just locked into the room. I was laughing out loud at him, like, what happened?! I was drooling and laughing. A lot of guys do vocals in techno now, it’s an accepted thing, but this felt way, way different.”
Sunil cuts in: “A lot of stuff around is this Germanic-sounding EBM vocal thing. Don’t get me wrong, I love German electronic music but a lot of people try to fit these vocals in to sound a certain way. But I think the voice can be used as an instrument and it gives us a more extreme sound palette overall. Using your voice is an extremely dynamic way of expressing yourself within electronic music. Sometimes if I’m on the mic I don’t know what it’s going to sound like, but I Know I won’t sound ‘right’, if you know what I mean. I think it’s just trying to make techno that’s a little bit more animalistic without relying heavily on just distortion or speed.”
Matt adds: “Power and speed and distortion can often be masking what’s going on. Sometimes there’s often not much going on underneath the blanket. With Tinfoil we wanted to take off the blanket… but maybe we’re two lunatics underneath it!”
Matt recalls the pair’s last gig at Tresor in Berlin, when “you could’ve literally visualised a wall of sound… anyway, sometimes when Sunil is doing something live I’m not even aware of it because I’m in my own world, but this time I just stood back.”
Sunil adds: “There was a big build-up that week, I was doing a lot of stuff for the Give Us the Night campaign, on so many radio shows, I was a talking head all week, no music, then trying to fit in the Tinfoil practice for the gig. It meant I was maybe running on an extra battery.
“At one point I’d put the mic down, I wasn’t even using it. Everyone was screaming at us and I was screaming at them. It was like Come To Daddy or something. We had control over the tempo as well so it was like we were electrocuting everyone and screaming back at them.
“It was such a great release, I felt elated, you know when something that great happens? The only thing I can think of, and this sounds mad, go and look at the video of Kirk Stevens getting the 147 in 1984. See when he comes off, I felt like that, I really was pinching myself at how enjoyable that was.”
Matt: “And I was just laughing and thinking, ‘Well that’s all the techno coming out of him now.”
Sunil adds: “We want us to give people a night to remember, for good or for bad. It can get so extreme, and that’s exactly what we want.”