Over 30 years since acid house’s summer of love and there are few of 1988’s cast of actors still left standing. Still fewer are those whose music is still resolutely pointing towards the future rather than endlessly looking to the past. In fact, there’s arguably only one candidate left in the UK. While his peers are content with revival parties and classical house nights at the Albert Hall, Andy Meecham is out on his own as one of the few whose gleaming analogue machines are still pointing towards an imagined future rather than an endlessly relived history.
As the Emperor Machine, Meecham’s solo project since 2003, he has been wrenching monumental basslines, strange keyboard figures and luminescent rhythms from his beloved synthesisers, inspired by everything from sci-fi movies and KPM library albums. In some ways, his mission has scarcely altered in the 35 years since he first heard ‘Planet Rock’ in the early 1980s. “That’s the thing that got me hooked,” recalls Meecham. “The fact that it was futuristic sounding. Anything that was sci-fi: UFO programmes, Dr Who, StarTrek. Stuff that suggested the future.”
While he’s happy to plough towards the future, we still has some serious history to contemplate. Meecham is one of the clique of acts in Staffordshire inspired by house music that included Candyflip, Altern-8, Sure Is Pure and Nexus 21. Meecham’s band with long-time conspirator Dean Meredith, Bizarre Inc, was one of the most successful of their generation and 1991’s ‘Playing With Knives’ was a staple in all self-respecting DJs bag that year. Major label deals, led to swift dissatisfaction; Meredith and Meecham went back to the mixing board to rethink their future.
As Chicken Lips, they re-emerged alongside peers like the Idjut Boys and Faze Action, to offer their delayed and dislocated rhythms to an audience hungry for relief from the monotony of the four-to-the-floor house rhythm, with joyously dubbed out originals and fiendishly clever remixes for luminaries like Ennio Morricone and Groove Armada to Wolfmother, transforming Love Train from a metallic romp into a disco-dub delight with a bottom-end bigger than a Kardashian. Then there are Andrew’s other aliases (he’s had more than Carlos The Jackal), notably Sir Drew, Future Four, Gino Fontaine, BIG 2000, Randee Jean and Zeefungk.
The Emperor Machine was born out of an online slating of one of his favourite synths, the Roland SH 3A. Indignant at this appalling slight, Meecham set to work on a track only using said Roland. James Dyer at DC Recordings loved it so much, he asked him for another and gave the project its name. Emperor Machine it was.
Over a decade down the line and we are here at album number five. His latest offering, Music Not Safari, is yet another forward roll. Without forsaking any of the Emperor Essence, it’s a lesson in rhythm and arrangement, taking in space disco, Italo-disco, house and Giorgio Moroder and stuffing through an industrial Staffordshire mincer before adding some much-needed delay. If disco-dub pioneers like François K and Larry Levan had lived on a diet of caustic soda, Chicken Cottage and parma violets, they may well have sounded like this. The latest chapter in his unfolding story is a link up with Damian Harris, newly re-installed at Skint, after several years cockle-picking on Whitstable beach.
As with most of the Emperor Machine music, the methodology goes against the grain of how most electronic musicians approach producing. Rather than reducing it to mathematical blocks of music on a computer screen, Emperor Machine is about long passes, played live and then edited down by a crack team of highly-trained Potteries-based orang-utans, lorded over by merciless taskmaster Meecham.
The key to success is not dancefloor domination, but a far simpler rule, says Meecham. “The music has to make me shudder. So I work on something until I get that tingling feeling. So it’s almost more of a drug thing really. I have to get that out of the music and I can’t get that from full-on 909 four-to-the-floor dance music.”
A shudder and a tingle. And maybe a monster bassline. Emperor Machine redux.