Techno Philosophy, Thrift Stores, and Anthracite – A Conversation with Sian

Author : Lee Trotter
July 25, 2015

Techno Philosophy, Thrift Stores, and Anthracite – A Conversation with Sian


“It’s tribal. People bullshit on about it being a religious thing, but in a lot of ways it is the most basic idea of celebration” – Sian 

There is a primal rhythm deeply rooted in human nature. Music often brings out these feelings and inhibitions, and if there’s one artist that has tapped into this energy it’s Sian. He’s developed a signature sound of techno through a plethora of releases,while curating his own vision of techno through his imprint, Octopus Recordings. Artists such as Sasha Carassi, Harvey McKay, and Jay Lumen have all signed on helping curate the vibe of Octopus, and Sian continues to host numerous Octopus Recordings showcases around the world from Movement to Sonar. In the wake of his recent EP, Medicine Man, Sian has completed and prepared his forthcoming album, Anthracite, with a release date set for August 3rd.

“This was more of a cinematic trip,” explained Sian. “I actually worked on a bunch of tracks as singles, and then I had about 100 tracks and started honing it down to 50, and so on.” Sian’s approach on music is holistic at times as far as inspiration goes. Honing in on specific sounds, or perhaps a surprising voicemail from a good friend, Sian builds a cohesive foundation around the tracks that allows them to stand alone or coexist as one body of work.

As the process came to a close, Sian eventually ended up with 23 tracks to tell the musical story of his new album. Anthracite embodies the peaks and valleys of techno complete with various cinematic landscapes and tantalizing bass line rhythms from start to finish.

Sian with album titleWith a set up comprised of a few Moog Synths, a Korg MS-20, and an array of outboard effects, Sian had the tools at his disposal to start developing tracks from the resonate hypnotic groover of Gulf Stream to the dubby techno textures of Metaverse, and everything inbetween.

We recently met up with Sian to talk in depth about the making of Anthracite, techno philosophy, and an unforgettable story outside of Johannesburg…among other things.  Listen to the Anthracite LP previews and read the full conversation below for more insight.

Antracite Information

Release Date: August 3, 2015
Available on: Beatport

Enter the Beatport Play Contest for Sian’s track – Medicine Man

Sian: Official Website | Facebook | Soundcloud | Resident Advisor | Beatport
Octopus Recordings: Official Website | Facebook | Soundcloud | Beatport

Our Conversation with Sian

Sian Black White Wall

On the way over I was listening to some of the tracks off Anthracite. 23 tracks of some really nice techno sounds and arrangements! How many albums have you recorded?

I did an album last year and I did one two years before that.

How did this one compare to the previous two albums?

This was more of a cinematic trip. I actually worked on a bunch of tracks as singles, and then I had about 100 tracks and started honing it down to 50, and so on.

When you were narrowing it down, what exactly were you looking for?

I was trying to find the tracks that told the story of it being something that you could not only dance to but have a listening experience as well. I listen to music a lot in my car, and I kind of like driving at night and just listening and zoning out. I wanted there to be not just the rhythm but some emotional musicality as well.

Would you say the album is best listened to from start to finish?

 Yeah, totally! I wanted it to be like that. If you notice, there’s an intro then it kinda goes up and down for a while, then there is a definite outro.

I noticed on the ride over, tracks like Lunar for example; The intro is spacey and really has a tension to it and then it just hits this groove and the vibe carries into the next track very nicely.  

Definitely! Also, some of the tracks have vocal samples from movies, and actually vocals from my friends and some of my own vocals that were sampled pieces to tell a story.

I heard that on the second track. What was the name again?

Diamond Shore! That’s actually a funny story! My friend Francesco, in the daytime he works at Cadenza and at nighttime he makes music as Cold Burn. So, he was stoned on codeine. He doesn’t do drugs at all, and for something that was wrong with him he was given codeine and he reacted to it. So he basically took the medicine and left a message for me on WhatsApp, and he was saying “Ohhh I went to the chemist, I got this whatever…” I sampled the message and cleaned it up a bit and used it in the track without telling him haha I just sent it to him as Sian and Cold Burn, and he was like “Ah I love it.”

It’s funny how some stories come about, and how something like a field recording, vocal sample, or sound can come to manifest itself into a dominant element of the track.

That’s where I get a lot of inspiration. A bit of an old movie, or some stab or sound effect. It grows into this melodic element.

When it came down to putting the album together, what was the studio set-up like? What was your favorite piece of equipment, or most used piece of equipment?

sian--1422362551216That was at an interesting time. I was working with a lot of analog synthesizers, I bought a lot of the Moog stuff. And some semi-modular things that I was patching. Some of the melodies and synth lines are triggered from random sequences, and I would let the sequence run, and tweak it while recording. There’s a somewhat human feel letting the sequence run and letting it evolve into this structure.


Moog Sub Phatty (Left) and Korg MS-20 (Right) in Sians studio

Now that all is said and done, what tracks are you playing out in your set? Do you have a favorite from the album?

It’s hard to choose a favorite to be honest. The tracks that I don’t expect to work in a club, for example the DJ’s like Adam Beyer, Dubfire, and Richie, they’ve been playing Medicine Man which is a track I wrote with spooky chords, and it’s kinda laid back, but then when you play it in a club there’s a frequency in the bass that I was messing with that just sounds really driving.

You hear it in headphones and think ‘Oh maybe this will be a good mid set track’, but then you listen to it and it’s a peak time thing. Sometimes you need to do that focus group research hahaha

And what better focus group than dance floors around the world?

Sian Live

Yeah! It’s also unpredictable. It’s easy if you have a crowd where you want them, and they’re losing it on the dance floor. If you play anything then, they’re going to get it because they’re in the mood. But the real test is to play [the track] over two months in different situations. In festivals and clubs and kind of judge it that way.

Different venues and perhaps, I would imagine, different times in the sets. See if a track can make the transition from a warm up and kick things off into the peak groove, or see if it can make the transition from peak to more deep hypnotic realm.

Exactly, that’s a good way to test it. And you take a mean average of the times you’ve tested it haha

So with two previous albums, and now Anthracite forthcoming; what would you say about the importance of having an album for electronic artists?

I think it’s really important, and I always encourage the artists we work with to work on albums. They’re always in this mentality that techno artists should do 12” or releases.

It feels like a promotional tool at times. The EP and releases act as material to support bookings and the tour.

 I think what builds you as an artist in people’s mind is the story you have to tell and you have a concept. You have an attitude like, ‘I’m here to stay, I’m making music that’s not just one track every year that’s  a Beatport hit.’ It’s nice to show a side of you that you work on a lot of music, and you want to make a body of work that is expressive.

I think there’s really something to be said about proper electronic albums. With Anthracite there seems to be a mixture of emotive tracks, and tracks that when you play them out still sound really incredible live and dance floor friendly.

Totally! It’s this attitude again of “why shouldn’t techno artists make albums?” People say, ‘oh spend your time making a big release’, and I agree with that to some extent. But if you look at the big guys, one of the reasons they got big was because they could show their wide scope of music.

Sian-End-Of-The-BeginningCan you take me through the past few years of Octopus Recordings? What was the inspiration for starting it, and where are you all at now?

Basically, it was a frustrating feeling like most peoples labels where you’re thinking, ‘I know these tracks are good, I’ve had good reactions, we have a similar aesthetic. We can send these demos to people, but they might not understand them.’ It’s too dark, it’s too murky, big creepy basslines, you know? So that’s exactly where it came from; that feeling of frustration and no one was doing the music unique to me.

JLAt the start, I’m not the most social dude so it was kind of like meeting people at gigs with similar interests, and we’d end up working together. They’d do a release come and go away. Maybe come back a few years later.

Sounds like contract work for the label.

Yeah. I think some of the remixes and the people that were naturally drawn to the label because of the aesthetic of being black and white marketing/branding.

It really works. We’re one of the few labels on Beatport that don’t have these elaborate color designs and artwork. When you flick through on Beatport, you immediately spot an Octopus release, and that was kind of the concept behind that.

This simple idea of ‘that’s our branding, our gang colors’.

Absolutely, and that’s something you and others can relate to. On the subject of branding and label concepts, in light of recent news about 50 Weapons closing, there’s something to be said about strong label concepts. They knew it was 50 releases and then…done!

 Yeah, it’s a spectacular label. To be thinking like that, we need more of it. Right? If you look at the early days of Kompakt they were a label that looked like a package you take off at the supermarket. It was purposely this renegade, German, communist idea of the most minimal and cheap packaging to look like a supermarket product. This idea that they had a label that was all unique and you flip through and see the Cologne insignia.

Yeah, I remember some of those older Kompakt releases and the art and packaging always catches your eye.

 I still play some of them!

I’m curious about the music you grew up on. Did you have an electronic influence from the start?

sian--1422362681340Yeah. Since I was a kid the music that really caught me was music that sounded like it was made with machines. So in the 80’s the very first music I heard drew me in if it was made with drum machines, or synths, or various effects. I knew very early, I’d say around when I was 16, I knew this is what I wanted to do. For me it was messing around going to crappy thrift stores and getting effects boxes and trying it out. I’d take a guitar and just hit a chord and let it roll through the effects unit, turn it up to eleven hahaha

It’s funny you mention thrift stores. My uncle owns a pawn shop and people bring in all sorts of weird shit. But one thing that always comes up is guitars and various effects units! Let’s just say it has a real vintage look haha

Some of them are worth their weight in gold! If you burn out the circuits in them you’re creating that type of fuzz. Or let the battery die down you get these real crackly textures.

Some really crazy lo-fi textures! A lot of the pioneers in our scene they recorded on a four track with so-so equipment and made it work and it was unique.

Using it the wrong way! That’s something so important. I always say, especially with young kids, they’re like “yeah I got these hundreds synths and these effects units” And I’m like, just get one plug in and abuse the shit out of it until you know exactly what it can do. You’ll learn more from that one plugin then you will from all these VSTs that you download. If you know how to use one, you know how to use a lot of them.

It’s more about find those three plugins that you really like, and then make your sounds. You learn the limitations in a good way. Once you learn how to use them in the right way, you can then experiment and learn how to use it in the wrong way haha

As soon as you know the rules and construct of the box, you can jump out of it.

That’s where Richie’s [Hawtin] famous delays comes from. All that stuff is from him maybe standing on an FX pedal too hard with his send up all the way.

Summer Tour - SianThose impromptu actions and experiments can give really way to awesome results at times. Changing subjects a bit…we’ve noticed some nice upcoming tour dates! You have Decibel Festival upcoming in Seattle. Looks like a great festival in store! 

 Yeah, I can’t wait for that! Great lineup!

The Northwest United States has always had a good scene for music. But now it’s this part of the country that really has a thriving electronic scene. Have you played up there before?

 Yeah, I’ve played twice in Seattle at small warehousy things. Then I played in Portland at a dungeon type scenario haha There’s so much alternative culture, they’re famous for being grungy and out there and left field, and their taste is really alternative.

Do you think that translates well with the Octopus brand?

Yeah, I think so. I think there’s a crowd for it.

You’ll be with like-minded fans and colleagues for sure! Then soon after Decibel you’ll be doing Mixmag in September!

Yeah the live broadcast from their office here in Los Angeles! I heard it’s really cool.

I’m sure you’ll like it! Hell of a view. 

I’m a bit nervous for that one. Those scenarios where you’re being filmed…sometimes you forget that you’re being filmed, and you’re just DJ-ing…doing your thing. Then you looking back on it…hahah

Sian Bulgaria

Sian at Metropolis, Bulgaria

It’ll be a fun one no doubt. So as we come close to the end of this conversation, there’s one thing we’d like to ask…What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen or done at 6AM?

Oh wow. Where would I start……I’d say…..proposing to my wife in South Africa. Out in the outback in the middle of nowhere! I was playing a festival for the Red Bull guys outside Johannesburg, and yeah, basically we were out in a really wild area with elephants and zeebras, and I popped the question and it worked out!

That’s a pretty incredible story haha

It could have gone horribly wrong haha There were some local crazies around, but it was literally giraffes, zebras, elephants, and buffalo in the midst.

So you had a few witnesses to the occasion!

Haha yeah yeah!! Then when we actually got married, she’s Russian and I’m Irish, and we were both living in Barcelona at the time, and paperwork is a nightmare. So we went to Gibraltar and we got married in her Majesty’s Registry Office, and we didn’t’ have any witnesses so we asked these people off the street and we didn’t realize they were gypsies. So they’re just standing there with no shoes as we’re making it official hahah

What a great story. Sian, we thank you very much for your time! Enjoyed chatting and we’re all looking forward to the album.