Australian techno pioneer Andy Rantzen flew onto our radar 2016 with the Oz Waves compilation by Steele Bonus on Efficient Space. A year later an amazing dub reggae record was released on the same label, and he’s done it yet again with “The Blue Hour Vol II”. Andy showcased a special mix for ROOF.FM, containing old productions and new. Spanning a period of 30 years, it shows his willingness to explore the Detroitian legacy. Both straightforward and versatile, it’s a riveting personal document of music making. We skyped with Andy Rantzen to talk industrial roots, happy hardcore remixes and staying away from award ceremonies.
Andy, when I first heard your track “Will I Dream” I was blown away. The vocals, the breakbeats, the otherness. What’s the story here?
That track came together during a transitional phase. In the 80s I was in a band called Pelican Daughters, which was basically a school band, neither of us was really good at playing any instruments. We were into industrial and experimental music like Severed Heads, SPK or Throbbing Gristle, or melodic stuff that was pretty weird like The Legendary Pink Dots. So we were making music in that way. Then I discovered Chicago house and early Detroit techno. And for me this was a very logical progression from that metal dance era. It was what we already liked, but rhythmically much sharper, much more minimal and intense. During that time I made “Will I Dream”.
When was that?
Were you surprised about the enthusiasm “Will I Dream” received after it’s release on the Oz Waves compilation?
When I wrote “Will I Dream” I tried to raise interest but got none, so it sat on a tape the whole time. It was only when Michael Kucyk [from Efficient Space] got in touch and took it off cassette. So, I was very happy it got its place in the sun eventually. After all, you never know whether that’s going to happen to the music you made long ago, so archive it properly kids!
How did Pelican Daughters respond to the arrival of this new dance music in the 80s?
To some extent it divided our group. I was really into it, the others not so much. Justin [Brandis], who I still work with in Pelican Daughers, was more into prog rock. At that point we were listening to the groovier end of industrial music, groups like Front 242, Liaisons Dangereuses, Foetus, No! and of course SPK, who were such a key industrial group for Australians. I remember Justin and his dad were really into Neu!, King Crimson, basically really cool stuff with guitars in a more traditional band format. Anyway, I was going, we should do some of this acid house stuff, but none of the Pelicans really wanted to. So I met up with a guy who I already knew who was also releasing on the Cosmic Conspiracy tape label. Paul Mac was up for it, especially house music, and we later joined forces as Itch-E and Scratch-E.
Did you witness a kind of Australian Summer of Love back then?
I remember a couple of Dutch guys coming over. We called them Double Dutch, of course! They brought over a lot of Acid House records. So these guys filled up their apartment here in Sydney and put a smoke machine in it. And had a party. That was the first time I really heard it off the radio. I remember a room filled with smoke and people putting holes through the very thin walls (laughs). They were a couple of crazy Europeans!
THESE CRAZY DUTCH GUYS CAME TO SYDNEY IN 1988. THEY DID AN ACID HOUSE PARTY IN THEIR APARTMENT. IT WAS FILLED WITH SMOKE AND THEY PUT HOLES THROUGH THIN WALLS.
In these early days in Switzerland, it felt like doing an acid house impression, a simulation.
Yeah, a simulation. We had just started to hear about the Detroit sounds. But we didn’t know much about it directly. We had to read about it in NME and imagine what it sounded like [laughs]. And then there was this amazing Acid House compilation from Chicago. It had that really nasty, basic let’s dance kind of vibe.
Which compilation was that?
The one that I really liked was called “Acido Amigo” with tracks by Tyree, Cool House, Humanoid and Fast Eddie. Big party tunes! I still play out that record. What really struck me about Acid House was the way it was done. There was this kind of dreaminess in the use of samples. They were very keen on taking a small, sensual vocal snippet and plugging away at it. “Rock This Party Right” by Cool House, probably still my all time favourite acid house record, has this quality, and I basically studied at the feet of that track. Ah-ah…ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh–oh-ooh! A bit of a reverb and a 303 behind it. A 909 behind it, fat in the bass and papery in the treble, just marching on, all tone controls set to the left. That was like a revelation – wow!
And this spilled over into “Will I Dream”?
Yes, very much so. There track is built out of samples and a 303. I was doing a lot of sampling at the time because I was influenced by Severed Heads. All my friends in that 80s industrial scene in Sydney wanted to sound like Severed Heads. It was simply a given that we always needed to have samples in our music. We were young and impressionable. We didn’t do much that lacked a vocal sample. Pelican Daughters often had vocals from one of us, or at least some kind or some other vocal component. And for a while we’d spent some time in the 80s trying to find a vocalist. It hadn’t really dawned on me yet how powerful instrumental music could be in a rhythmic context.
What about the live mix you did for us?
It consists of old and new stuff. And it’s got some collaborations in it. It was interesting to me how I could meld the old stuff with the new stuff over such a long period of time, 30 years or so, and it didn’t seem to make such a large difference. My old friend and collaborator, Ryan Spinoglio, helped me putting together this mix. I tend to rely on friends and collaborators who are natural technocrats to fill in the gaps in my knowledge and skills. I’m quite clumsy [laughs].
Do you have a background in DJing?
I’ve been doing it on and off for at least twenty years, but I’m like that guy who doesn’t get any better with it, who just can’t get it right. And I have to say I’m not very good with technology either! I’m always struggling to make it easy enough for my sensibility. But I do think I have some ideas worth expressing. But luckily, there are tools and techniques to set up people like me. In a sense, technology is my prosthetic device to get my ideas across. Technology has been great for that because you don’t need to learn an instrument. But it’s also pretty terrible. This hole of expanding possibilities. That’s why I like to stick to simple gear.
What’s your setup?
Since 1996, I have been using a workstation, the Kurzweil series: the K2500 and the K2600. There are lots of secondhand units out there in Australia that are barely used, so when one goes down for good, I get another one. You can synthesize, sample and sequence on that machine. And before that I worked with the Ensoniq EPS series.
You said in an interview that you gravitated towards a “cool, almost non-human form of romanticism”.
Yes. Working with technology is the correct mode of perception for coping with reality [laughs].
Tell me about “Sweetness and Light”, the dance hit you had in the 90s with Itch-E & Scratch-E.
It wasn’t really big at the time. It got something to 64 on the Australian charts, and sold a few thousand copies. The market Australia is small. The perception in this country is that the track was big – but it’s more like a rearview mirror hit. As the years went by, more and more people got interested in it, and it started appearing on lists of classic Australian tracks. people wrote about it, the myth became the official narrative, and it became a “classic track”. Nostalgia has made it beautiful.
In 1996, I studied in Adelaide and Melbourne, but I don’t remember finding any techno or house partys. Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough.
In regional Victoria there were certain doofs going on, psytrance parties.
Australians call them doofs because that’s the sound the kick drum makes – “Doof, doof”. In 1996, the original rave scene was probably over by then. It peaked in 1992 and was over by 1994. After that, things went back to clubs and festivals. The build-up phase was the most exciting time, between 1989 and 1992. It sprang out of a house music scene in Sydney.
When you won the inaugural Best Dance Release category at the 1995 Aria Awards, Paul Mac thanked “all of Sydney’s ecstasy dealers, without whom this award would not be possible.”. But you stayed at home. Why?
I guess the reason was that I didn’t really believe in the hype surrounding the award. Why make a point about it? Nowadays, I would go. Because if you make a point of not going, you unintentionally make the reverse point by conspicuously staying away. If you don’t care in an aggressively negative way, you sort of imply that you do care. So that was probably the wrong approach.
Clearly you were ideologically biased?
Absolutely. Music is really the place where I like to do what I really like. Music as a hobby is the artform or space you want to pursue freely, without a boss or an agent telling you what to do. I’m quite protective of that space. First people come to you with chocolate and flowers, next they come asking for a new hit single! It’s good to be able not to have to please an audience. Because then you can see what you can really do, as a creature with a brain. What you are capable of, if left to your own devices.
But with remixes for INXS and The Wiggles you’ve also stepped into mainstream territory?
All these opportunities came through Paul. He has worked with the biggest and brightest in Australia on a very high end level. And occasionally he roped me in – willingly. When INXS were good, they were very good. And The Wiggles are really brilliant. I’m not necessarily a fan of everything that The Wiggles have done. My daughter has turned me off one Wiggles track, “Na Na Na”, in particular, by insisting on playing it over and over again for over one year! But doing that remix, in a happy hardcore style, with Paul Mac and a bottle of brandy, was one extremely fun afternoon and evening. You can hear that mix on Youtube. It’s had millions of views, very few people know it was Itch-E & Scratch-E, and the predominant response in the comments section is “This track used to make me cry when I was four”.
Ha! That’s a good one.
Generally speaking I’m up for incursions into the mainstream, especially nowadays. I enjoy the professionalism of the people who make a living there, I love and appreciate good pop craft and I learn a lot. But I myself don’t belong there full time, though it’s nice to visit.
You’ve tried out lots of things, stylistically.
It comes from being around long enough. I remember when I was 18 or 20, I only wanted to electronic music and nothing else. In my late twenties, dub reggae became the thing for me. Then I discovered techno, and then heavy metal when I was 35.
What does your routine of music making look like?
I write music every day, but not for long. I have a day job, working for the Australia Council for the Arts. I get up in the morning, make a coffee, spend ten to fifteen minutes making music, then I make my wife’s coffee. Then I go to work. So spending hours and hours in the studio is not an option, though it was once. I like to do ten to fifteen minutes a day. It can get you a long way, just doing small bursts of music on a regular basis.
It takes discipline to do that.
You say discipline, I say it comes easy when you’re compelled to do it. You know, it’s a bit like squeezing a pimple (laughs).
WRITING MUSIC TEN TO FIFTEEN MINUTES A DAY CAN GET YOU A LONG WAY.
You observed that music “changed my daughter’s life and mine, my house, my job, gave me new friends, and a new life. The one-four minute track reshaped everything.”
Brian Eno talks a lot about this, and expresses it better than me. There’s nothing particularly mystical about it – it’s the science of cause and effect. People ask me: You’re not making a lot of money out it, so why do you do it? Well, whole point of making records is because you want to live this kind of life: a life surrounded by creative and interesting people. Music can take you there and drop you right in the middle of it. You can change your life, of course, with money and fans. But the point of accruing money and fans is presumably to have a better and more interesting life. If you can get to this kind of life directly, without huge sums of money or a big fan base, why would you not take the most direct path? Because you can! I make a track. Someone gets in touch. Like you did. We talk. Music connects us. We’ve both made a new friend, or at least an interesting acquaintance. And that’s very powerful thing. And with the different styles you create, it’s like you’re connecting with different kinds of people. It’s almost like it draws them towards you. Music may not have brought me fame or money, but it has completely transformed my life, in a positive way, by bringing creative and inspiring people into my life. Also, of course, it’s changed the way I view the world around me. It’s sharpened my perception of natural events. I hear the music in life. So it’s been my teacher, my healer, my inspiration and one of my main means for encountering and making sense of the world.
Photo credits: Jay Richards (first picture), Ryan Spinoglio (second picture).