The Tough Heart of Luke Slater’s Planetary Assault Systems
It’s a gorgeous day in London, and I’m sipping overpriced cappuccino beside a café on a small canal boat in Little Venice. There’s the serene waterside; the sun reflecting off the ripples in the river. It’s not the kind of place you would associate with the atmosphere that Luke Slater occupies with his music. As Planetary Assault Systems, he has created some of the most visceral techno ever made: muscular and purposeful, built for the black belly of the Berghain.
Despite the darkness he inhabits musically, Slater is great company. He’s engaging and at ease with the motions of interview, something you might expect from someone who’s entering their fourth decade at this level. There’s also an aura of mischief about him: after our interview Luke asks Alex, our photographer, to pluck a pink flower from a nearby pub’s garden. He turns to me and confesses gleefully that he feels as though he’s just told a friend at school to smash a window and hide behind a wall. Later, when listening back to his records, I am reminded of the flash of his fanged smile.
To put it simply, Luke Slater has been about: playing as resident at Troll at Soundshaft in 1987; running Jelly Jam with Alan Sage and Dave Clarke in 89; unveiling a slew of distinct concepts in the early 90s and even flirting with the big-time under his own name; pushing the envelope of ambient techno as the 7th Plain and defining the hard-as-nails as PAS; releasing under the pioneering Mute Records and the monolithic Ostgut Ton. More recently, Slater has distilled his output down to one or two key aliases, while holding down his long-running guest residency in Berghain.
He is currently getting his set together for upcoming gigs under his Planetary Assault Systems alias, working with Steve Bicknell to translate the new Arc Angel album into a live setting. Though he’s known the veteran UK techno DJ for years now, the collaboration is borne of necessity. “I don’t have enough fingers,” he grins, gesturing with ringed hands at me. “20 is better than 10.”
The record was made under a set of self-imposed limitations: no more equipment than can fit on a small table. It reveals a playful approach to music making that serves to keep the process fresh and focused. “I love technical stuff, I love electronic inventions, I’m a massive fan of them. But at the same time, it doesn’t make anything better with writing. What do you really need? I thought: imagine you’re in a cave and that’s all you’ve got man, what are you gonna do? You find out a lot more that way I think and I enjoy that… the punishment.”
If that seems a little dark, it runs contrary to the feel of the album. On Arc Angel Slater has shifted Planetary Assault System’s focus somewhat, occupying a brighter space and leaning toward melody. It’s another technical detail that I suspect is to keep his attention, but he offers a reason I don’t expect. “It really feels like a time, not just in dance music but in society, where we need to try and open people’s minds, you know? With everything that’s going on in the world there’s a big drive to think in conservative ways, and really at the heart of it, I’m not a conservative thinker.”
"It really feels like a time, not just in dance music but in society, where we need to try and open people's minds"
This theme re-occurs more than once during our meeting. As our conversation develops, I get the feeling that it is inherent in much of what makes up Planetary Assault Systems. The moniker was conceived at the tail end of the halcyon days of conservatism. The explosion of dance music on this island at that time had much to do with a rebellion against Thatcher’s Britain. Perhaps Slater suspects a repeat.
Another theme that permeates much of his work, particularly as PAS, is Sci-Fi. As it turns out, this too is a product of that time, when it was much more present in the collective consciousness. “I grew up with this idea that it was linked together in exploration; that it’s all wrapped up. In the 80s there were these fantastical ideas about technology and that just sunk in. It’s the kind of stuff I think about all the time.”
So what drew him to the genre of techno? The wonder he feels in technology is clearly a factor, but I fancy there’s something deeper. “Well originally when you had the very early Detroit records, and rave and Chicago but especially with Detroit, there was a sort of melancholy that drew me to it. There was just kind of a sensitivity to the music, with a lot of rhythm,” he recalls.
Here we arrive at the crux of what drives much of his music – a sense of soul and spirituality. Despite the mechanisation, the fixation with technology, there lies a deep humanity in the sparseness. “It’s everything,” he concurs. “I’ve always felt that about records. It needn’t even be a dance record. The writer, the spirit of that person is within that. Whether they knew it was happening or not, you can just feel it.”
Slater knows what’s happening. Everything about Arc Angel is considered. The religious title is offset quite deliberately with its postmodernist leanings and the artwork too is a statement. The splurge of colour on the sleeve (and the many-coloured vinyl available on record) is a deliberate rejection of the monochrome palette that so often decorates the world of techno. He is animated on the subject, and his thoughts prove to encapsulate the essence of his new music, and his attitude over the years, far better than I could.
“Stripping colour from things is done,” he declares. “In same way I want the music to massage new areas in the brain, I want colour to do it too. To me all senses are intertwined. You’re welcome to explore with me.”
Arc Angel is out now via Ostgut Ton. Luke Slater appears at Transient Festival, Paris, 2-5 November