AU Presents: Phil Kieran
Techno guru Phil Kieran talks about working in Belfast, why Berlin isn't for him and his shattering work ethic with Craig Sheridan from AU Magazine
Anyone familiar with techno in Belfast will have at one point experienced Kieran, whether they're aware of it or not. If you know of Kieran you'll be familiar with his DJ skills and trademark sound. You'll also be familiar with his work with techno-punk outfit Alloy Mental, his long-standing residency at Shine, and over 100 record releases with labels such as Skint, Soma and Kingsize. With appearances at festivals such as Sonar and, more recently (and locally) Belsonic, Kieran's diary is full of international tour dates for his new live show and in-demand DJ sets. And still, he lives in Belfast.
'Lots of people moved to Berlin, but I don't hear them making better music,' says Kieran. 'If I moved to Berlin, I'd just end up taking loads of drugs and having too much to do. Something about being here helps keep you a bit more grounded and you just get on with it.' And get on with it he has. His new long player, SHH, has freshly dropped on Sven Väth's legendary German label Cocoon Records, so how did he go from earning £2 an hour at McDonalds to touring with Hot Chip promoting his new solo material?
'I had lessons on the piano and guitar and was in a few pretend bands with my brother, but that was all before I was 16, then I took it seriously,' Kieran recalls. 'I think I secretly liked dance music but didn't want to admit to it. Then Primal Scream's Screamadelica turned me round to listen to Andrew Weatherall and then going to the art college to David Holmes' nights and Choice nights. From when I started doing all that, I knew [that] that's what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.'
'Mixing records and making tunes was all part of the package, I just wanted to do it all. Everyone was using these [Roland] 909s and 303s but we just couldn't afford that. But we just kept saving up and collecting equipment and effects units. Then an Akai sampler cost £3000 and I was working in McDonalds and collecting glasses in the Elms making £2 per hour, and then also trying to go out at the weekends. It was really hard - 'Do I buy records or equipment?', you know? Like now, I'm sitting in front a of a big Soundcraft desk that I paid £3000 for, and I paid for that on the drip from Marcus Music. I'd go in every couple of weeks and pay off £60 or £80, and just pay it off. All I needed to do was get equipment, go out and listen to music.'
Kieran's early years as a producer saw him live in a flat in Ulsterville Avenue in south Belfast. 'I had £10,000 of equipment in the corner and slept on a mattress on the floor. I sat up 'til five in the morning to finish this thing I was working on for about two months, turns out it was shit, but I actually collapsed at one stage and got up and started working on it again.'
It's this stubbornness that has allowed Kieran to focus on getting the maximum from himself and his equipment.
'I don't have really high-end stuff. It's nothing any different to what a lot of other kids have. I like being pushed into a corner. I like being limited. I think people get carried away with too many synths and plug-ins, and forget what they're trying to do. It's better to limit yourself, so you squeeze things more, bend them a bit more. Instead of using them 10 per cent, you use them 98 per cent, and that shows in the music.'
'With the album, I wanted to go out of my way to try and be as obscure with my sample sources so the end product could be slightly weird. Before I started, I spent weeks making a sample library, making sounds and a huge drums library. You need to start with a bank of sounds and ideas, maybe have 100 ideas and only use ten, then make another 100 and only use three and keep doing it until it all gels together.
'Alloy Mental opened my mind up a bit; it takes you away from the linear mindset of making dance music. It removes you in a good way and I'm a bit more open-minded to what I'm making. When I was making [SHH], I wanted it to be very electronic, but my attitude toward it was a bit more of punk rock ethic. I was making an album for Cocoon Records, thinking when I was making the stuff, 'This is so not a Cocoon record', but when I sent it to them they loved it. If you try hard enough to do something good, not trying to be popular, it comes across the right way to the right ears. [Dutch techno producer] Speedy J said to me one time, when you make something and you get a feeling from it, whatever that feeling was, there's a high likelihood that someone else out there will connect the same feeling for them. You have to have a bit of faith in yourself.'
So with SHH being the first full-length album to bear Kieran's own name, how does he envisage it being consumed? Kieran explains that it is a 'listening experience' - suitable for listening to at home but also boasting segments that can be played at peak time in a club. 'Or,' he adds, 'you can be listening in your car and it not seem annoying, which some dance music can be. Sometimes hearing bad music inspires you; it tells you what to avoid. I like hearing bad music, because it motivates me to do the right thing.
'What I wanted this album to be was as a reference to all music over the last 50 years. My ultimate aim is that it doesn't date, so that in another 10 years you can stick it on and it will still have the same kind of feeling. I thought the only way to do that was to not think currently, and try to make a piece of music that was trying to stick to melody and mood which translate through time better.'
These influences are clear in the new album. It's packed with full-bodied beats that host distant, haunting pads that draw you in, only to startle with bright fizzing white noise and screaming oscillators. It's a very European techno style, with a clinical and precise sound akin to Eighties underground electro, not too removed from Justin Robertson's Lionrock or Cabaret Voltaire, while paying homage to Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and even the BBC Radiophonic workshop.
The production values testify to years spent honing the crafts of sound design and equalisation. Kieran's application of the technology and his manipulation of its capabilities are vast and varied, presenting imaginative and intriguing palettes of sound, juxtaposed with solid, throbbing bottom end. It is a dark, brooding landscape with sonic clouds of retro futurism.
His productions boast lush space and infinite depth, elements which offer a heady psychedelia often associated with early trance and goa styles, albeit at a more steady pace. This contemporary aesthetic is accompanied by the feeling that Kieran is searching for the evolution of his own artistic boundaries. There is a sense about this piece that it is a seminal work, and one that will signify an accumulation of years of graft, practice, determination, sacrifice and vision. A moment where as an artist, the future is unknown, but bright.
Kieran explains, 'Each time you do it, you have to clean the slate and think, 'Right, this is the one, this is my big moment'. It's not, but you have to motivate yourself in that way. I always took the attitude that this has to be the best I can possibly make this, and you have to take that attitude or what's the point?'
SHH is out now on Cocoon Records and can be bought from our online store. This feature originally appeared in AU Magazine 64. The latest issue of AU magazine is available online and in all good newsagents now.