Even for those with close ties to our electronic music scene it must surely come as a surprise that Pitch Black have been churning out their often ground-breaking music and visuals for more than two decades. A human generation but more like an eon in terms of the dance floor dub/electronica they specialise in. Okay, so it’s been nine years since ‘Rude Mechanicals’, but 2016 sees the duo of Paddy Free and Mike Hodgson mark their duo’s 20th year by dropping ‘Filtered Senses’, their fifth studio release. Michael Hollywood talked with Pitch Black’s famously orange-coiffed multi-tasking master beatmaker.
It’s late Thursday afternoon in New York when I connect with Paddy Free via Skype. It’s difficult not to notice how animated he is, given that it’s early Friday morning here in Aotearoa and everything is still a little slow and blurry at this end. Free is temporarily based in the Big Apple while his choreographer partner, Louise, completes her arts residency in the city. If, now well into his 40s, he’s still a ball of energy, then that’s just as well because life is moving pretty fast.
2016 has been a huge year for Free and the many different projects he’s involved with. Not least of which being Pitch Black, his collaboration with fellow production genius Mike Hodgson, a partnership that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
That milestone has been marked by the September release of the duo’s fifth studio album, ‘Filtered Senses’, and the prospect of a NZ summer tour which brings the pair home for festivals including Rhythm & Alps, Splore and Northern Bass. There will also be other festival dates plus a few rather more intimate gigs.
The day we speak, Huakirangi, Free’s collaborative single with Scott Morrison and brand new Hall Of Famer Moana Maniapoto, is set to be released.
Free’s working relationship with Maniapoto has been fruitful during the nine years since Pitch Black last released an album, and he’s quick to note that – amid all of the other mayhem – there’s a date in Finland on the horizon with Moana & The Tribe. It’s hardly surprising then, when Free says his calendar is full until at least the middle of April.
We talk about what local audiences will get when Pitch Black brings its show back home for those precious 20th anniversary gigs, and about how the new album will translate into a live environment. No surprise we should expect something special in terms of visuals.
“The vast bulk of it is festivals, just because it’s easier to just go into existing things, with Mike being in London and me not getting back until the end of November. And it also means a slightly bigger thing. We’ve got Mike’s son, who’s a lighting tech and VJ, collaborating with a light sculptor to build us a set worthy of marking the 20th anniversary.
“We’re expecting sets to be around an hour. At least half of it will be stuff off the new album. We had this crazy thought that we could try to do something – an excerpt – from every track off every album, in order, for the trainspotters! We do have a couple of songs in the live set that are hybrids of lots of older songs – there’s one that starts off as a song called Big Trouble Upstairs, which then goes into this medley that pulls stuff from everywhere. So some of the songs that we’re not going to play in their entirety, we’ll throw them into the medley.
“We listen back to our old live sets and go, ‘I can’t believe how slow that is.’ With dance music just getting faster and more intense, that’s what you have to deliver in a headline slot nowadays. We’ve definitely felt that what used to work in the mid-to-late ’90s, just feels so sedate now.”
Which brings us to ‘Filtered Senses’, and the small issue of the geographical distance between Hodgson and Free while the album was in its infancy.
“It involved about 18 months of sending rough ideas back and forth. The pace really picked up in the last six months, and then we finally threw it all together in two weeks at Mike’s place in Hackney, in his attic.
“We had booked a dry hire of a small studio not far from his place, but we went in there and decided we liked the sound of Mike’s room better. So we cancelled that and ended up working with our own monitors in his room.
“I was sleeping in the same room. It’s quite nice when you get an attic with a gable roof which cuts out the sort of reflection you get in a square box. I really liked it, and with the computer being 10 feet from the bed, it was luxurious!” he laughs.
‘Filtered Senses’ has a heavier, denser, and slightly darker hue to it, when compared to a lot of their earlier work. We discuss the notion that it’s merely a reflection of the big city living and the more intense pace that the pair have both experienced over the past couple of years.
“We take equal responsibility for it being a bit darker. I’ve characterised it as having a bit more graphite under its fingernails, as opposed to black sand. I really didn’t get to work on it outside of headphones until I came to Mike’s because I’ve been on the move, but yeah, I definitely think it does reflect that.”
There’s also a strong vocal presence on ‘Filtered Senses’, whether processed or more orthodox singing, with London-based newcomer Alison Evelyn featuring prominently on a handful of tracks.
“Mike does an open decks night at a pub in Hackney, where everyone can bring along a 7” to play. Alison was a punter there and a local friend. She’d done some recording in the past, so Mike asked her to come in. She was happy with the proviso that whatever she did might just end up as pure fodder; you know, we may take two syllables out of it and process them, and that might be all that makes it onto the album. But there are vocals there, some songs have quite a bit. ”
As if the upcoming tour and multiple side projects aren’t enough to be getting on with, Hodgson and Free have committed to putting together a visual clip (or video) for each of the new album’s eight tracks.
“These days, YouTube is the new radio, so you have to have something. Mike’s got this long history of VJ-ing. Prior to meeting Mike, I was working in film and video production companies as a trained tape operator, so I’ve always had an interest in visuals as well. Between the two of us we’ll cook something up.”
And, almost inevitably, there will be remixes. Each of their previous four albums have been the beneficiary of post-release remix projects.
“We’ll definitely do one for this album. We’ll find some people we like, or people whose music we like. Sometimes people contact us cold to say they really like a track, or they’ll say they’ve done a remix, just off the stereo mix. If we like it, we’ll throw them the stems and they can pick anything out of that, to see if they want to make more of it.”
So there’s clearly no taking the foot off the pedal over the remaining months of 2016. Speaking with Paddy Free it’s easy to see how they have managed to prosper and remain relevant across two decades. His energy and enthusiasm for the project is infectious, and he remains disarmingly humble about his own achievements, and indeed, those of Pitch Black…
“We’ve got no plans to stop. We’ve always thought that if you’re never fully in fashion, then you’ll never go out of fashion,” he concludes.