Daniel Avery: There’s a time, and a place
Daniel Avery is a habitual second-guesser. You might not expect it, as these spurts of low confidence are incongruous with his poised presence in techno’s big leagues.
This does, however, go some way to explain the lengthy and unintended pause between Avery’s 2013 breakout LP Drone Logic and this month’s follow-up, Song for Alpha. He hasn’t been entirely silent this whole time; fans of Avery’s signature psychedelic-electronic sound could get their fix through a pair of EPs released as part of side-project Rote. But as a solo artist, he went through the ringer working out the fine details of the next major statement he wanted to make. Six albums worth of material got discarded during the process – though he thankfully stopped short of the full Chinese Democracy.
The bouts of skittish self-assessment also give clues as to why Avery keeps so many plates spinning at any one time. Admitting that he’s still yet to settle into a comfortable niche no matter what he does, he cycles through multiple ventures partly to avoid being pigeonholed. If he took an easy road now and again, or at least stopped swerving between lanes out of fear of stalling, he’d likely have a more harmonious life. “Sure, there’s a lot of anxieties that go with all this,” he admits. “What if it falls on its face, and I’m over by next week? But as long as you do stuff on your own terms, you can’t really lose.”
Nervous hyperactivity hasn’t hurt his career, though it might be exerting a physical and mental toll. When we meet – holed up at Avery’s favourite pub as the majority of the UK seems to be submerged in snow, both shivering despite being swaddled in coats and scarves – he apologies for being frazzled by an intense schedule. There’s a typical thrum of activity: DJ sets are booked at venues across the world for the next six months, many of them start-to-close marathons. His second BBC Essential Mix landed just days after another NTS Radio residency slot; both consciously avoided a rote 4/4 route. His curation at cherished French festival Nuits Sonores was unveiled, looking very much like an extension of his earlier Divided Love parties. It features a white-hot cast of contemporary club destroyers (Helena Hauff, Nobu, Lena Willikens et al), as well as some exploration of the outer reaches, from live acts Tropic of Cancer and Nine Inch Nails’ hardware warrior Alessandro Cortini (Avery has been a fanboy since his teens).
All this is happening at the same time as Song for Alpha’s promo push. On a purely categorisation level, the polished chrome of Drone Logic and the icy blue flame of his DJ-Kicks mix will be easier to place than the orange-purple hues and non-linear flow of the new LP. He shows off a broader array of influences compared to the consistent clubby lurch of the debut. There’s an expanded sonic vocabulary at play; it floats as much as it pummels.
Song for Alpha doubles up as a cumulation of learned experiences over the past five years of Avery’s life. A light/dark contrast mirrors his experience on the road, shuttling between blinking airport lounges and strobing dancefloors. “Making the album was a necessary distraction from what was happening at the weekend,” Avery recalls. “It was a space to breathe.” The calm retreats on the record, he concedes, “were made for me, first and foremost.”
Songs for Alpha‘s dynamics might throw first-time listeners, with mesmeric techno assaults folding into ambient lullabies in a shuffled manner. These interludes will bookend each side of vinyl for the physical pressing, something Avery hopes will feel “like natural chapters of a novel”.
“The actual, final flurry of creativity came pretty fast,” he says of the album. “The rush of excitement when it did was utterly addictive and euphoric.” That provoked an identical feeling to being in the pocket during a home-run gig, “when it’s almost like the room is selecting records for you, and you feel you can’t do anything wrong”. This is when Avery knew he finally had it down.
Avery, rocking back and forth on the pub sofa either through twitchiness or the biting cold, is at his most animated and comfortable when talking about what inspires him. Interestingly, he’s keener to tackle the topic of DJing rather than the album which took half a decade of his life. His mood feels typical of someone with over 10 years under wing on the tour circuit. Having stared out from behind the controls for so long, he now values the shared energy of a communal gathering, or the importance of carving out solace from a mean-spirited world.
But the positives – a breakthrough wave of DJs with something different to say, and an uptick in audience appreciation for slow-burns and left-turns – stand in stark contrast to what he’s increasingly fatigued by: the dick-swinging. “It is one of the most tiresome sights in dance music, isn’t it? A load of DJs, usually blokes, lining up with their headphones and their USBs, instantly giving it some behind the decks, as if to say, “oh it’s my turn to smash it now!” That fucking bores me to tears.” Avery spends a fair part of our afternoon bloodletting over the inane posturing, the fighting for bill placement, and the general collateral faff surrounding club culture.
The problem is, Avery is very much ensconced within that world. He spends a lot of time trying to punch out of the circuit DJ mould, but kowtows to some of its opportunities, too. Drone Logic ended up being the hit record that kept hitting. If you subscribe to Daniel Avery’s online presence, it’s not hard to become desensitised to monochrome videos of his old bangers still circulating. Isn’t this playing the same zero-sum game of DJ dominance he rails against?
It’s not quite as black and white as that. Even if he didn’t want to make another Drone Logic, he’s still proud of its impact and longevity. It’s kept him in rotation, and acted as something of a smokescreen while he finessed a better idea of where he wanted to go next. Five years is a very long time in electronic music: see LCD Soundsystem’s entire interregnum for proof. Now, a welter of ideas lay ahead: art installations, live plans, “a body of work” he wants to build up now the pressure of the sophomore LP has been hurdled. “I kind of want to get off this DJ merry-go-round,” he says, though I’m not sure I fully believe him on this.
There’s a sense that the initial connection Avery forged with fellow British psychonauts Erol Alkan and Andrew Weatherall was not simply over a shared sound or style, but shared sensibilities too. Weatherall doesn’t take any weekday shows at all; Alkan can dip in and out of dance music at a scale that suits him, comfortable with a mega-festival or a regional sweatbox. Both have broad and respected catalogues, both sit slightly above the mire, and both have a finessed relationship with their audience. They offer a roadmap to what Daniel Avery might really be after: some peace at the eye of the storm.
But for the moment, with more flexibility, maybe Avery will be more at ease with his lot. “I’ve been given enough confidence by the last five years to think the next stage could be truly exciting,” he enthuses. We won’t have to wait long to found out.
Photography: Tom Andrew
Grooming and Makeup: ¨Charli Avery
Styling: Davey Sutton
Songs for Alpha is released 6 April via Phantasy
Daniel Avery appears at Field Day, London, 1-2 June