Primitive Trust on honesty in production and why you just can't beat an MPC


Some bands take longer to form than others. Despite being admirers of each other’s work for over a decade, it was a chance meeting at a music festival in Morocco that cemented the friendship of Will Saul, head of Aus Music, and Tom Mangan, previously of Cass & Mangan/Deadset, and owner of label/clothing brand Millionhands.

Coincidentally, Mangan had just moved to within 20 minutes of Saul’s Somerset home and recently set up his woodshed studio. It was here that the duo would create the foundations for the project Primitive Trust. Three EPs have now been released, inspired by self-enforced gear limitations and an instinctual love for house and techno based on “wigged-out synthwork and propulsive rhythms”.

Will, apart from being a member of Primitive Trust, you have huge experience in A&R. How did you get started in the music industry?

WS: “During university, actually. About 18 years ago, I started doing work experience for my degree at Sony Music London - just making tea for people and sticking envelopes at first. But it was a really valuable experience, because I learned how to release a record from top to bottom, and made a lot of good contacts. I did have a psychopathic, menopausal French boss, though, which ended up making me leave to set up my first label, Simple Records. I’d started dabbling with music around then and had an Akai at home. I was DJing around London with friends.”

With recent industry changes and social media, how has the practice of A&R changed?

WS: “There’s less money floating around. In general, budgets have contracted because CD and vinyl sales are proportionately down compared to 15-20 years ago, so the amount you can offer artists is definitely lower. But that’s only started to affect me more in the last few years working for the !K7 label. For my labels, it’s never been an issue because they’ve never made much money [laughs], and we’ve always operated on a 50/50 net profit split deal. I’ve never really gone out and about and found artists that way; it’s more about getting a promo from someone and sniffing around online. Finding electronic music has always been a bit different to band A&R, where you have to see the gigs to see if they’re the real deal.”

So how did you come together and start Primitive Trust?

WS: “We’ve known each other for about ten years without ever really spending a lot of time hanging out, until we saw each other at a festival in Morocco. We’ve both got kids of similar ages, so Tom came down to see us, had some lunch, and he’s ended up moving 20 minutes from me into the wilds of Somerset.”

Was Tee Mango your first project, Tom?

TM: “I’ve been releasing records for the best part of 20 years, mostly under my given name, Tom Mangan. I had a couple of other projects, like Cass & Mangan, which was signed to Wall of Sound, and after that Deadset with a guy called Jesse Rose. After that, I took a bit of time off to start a clothing brand called Millionhands, which collaborates with electronic music labels and recording artists to produce limited edition apparel. But in the last couple of years, I’ve got progressively back into production, built a home studio and started releasing records again.”

How did you both approach things initially?

TM: “I think it was very much about going in and seeing what happened, but we realised early on that it would be good to give ourselves some restrictions so we could get ideas out as quickly as possible and get stuff done within a relatively limited amount of time. We experimented with a small palette of instruments: a Rhodes piano, Akai MPC2500, Roland SH-101 and a Juno, using Ableton as the sequencer.”

Unlimited choice can become problematic, and some artists will deliberately limit themselves. Can you relate to that?

TM: “Yeah, it definitely makes sense. There’s a thing called the paralysis of choice, so if you’ve got 15,000 presets to choose from every vintage synth in the entire world, you can get lost and disappear up your own bum and not come out with any music. The aim of the game is to get in the studio and produce.”

WS: “I must say, working with Tom was quite a revelation because he’s quite good at being decisive and filtering the shit. I’ve worked with a lot of people, but we’ve got a lot of shared tastes and it’s very easy to come up with ideas we both like. We trust in each other. He’s also good at putting time restrictions on things, born out of the fact that we’ve got to pick our kids up from school [laughs]. That’s been really good, because we finish tracks very quickly and can still be objective about them - we’ve not been listening to them for weeks on end.”

TM: “For me, the best things always come about quickly and generally haven’t had a lot of thought involved in their creation. It comes out and you shape it as much as you can, but you don’t try and turn it into something, you just let it be what it is. If you’re honest enough to stand back from it, you can later decide whether you like it or not, if it fits with a certain label, or whether you want a certain person to remix it. If you put your business hat on when you’re making stuff, it generally comes out a bit shit.”

A track like Power On, for example, is uptempo, but you’ve somehow managed to capture a very downtempo vibe. Where are you looking to position yourselves? 

WS: “The downtempo is the Rhodes, because as soon as you throw that over something it instantly becomes deep and melancholic. I’ll never stop doing that because I love the sound. I don’t think we really thought about it that much; by the time we were one EP down in terms of the writing process, we just tried to follow the same format for the next one.”

TM: “We’ve done a series of three EPs following a rough blueprint that has happened organically, creating a house track and a disco track, but I don’t think we necessarily have to keep following that either. There wasn’t really a master plan.”

The downtempo is the Rhodes, because as soon as you throw that over something it instantly becomes deep and melancholic. I’ll never stop doing that because I love the sound.

So are you both working independently of each other and coming together to collate ideas?

WS: “Tom works on a lot of stuff separately. I don’t have much time to do music on my own because my wife threw most of my kit out. But I’ll eventually get to the point where I can set up a studio back in my house - or an outbuilding near to my house that my wife and children can’t get into.”

Your gear seems to have expanded since those initial sessions, but you’re still using Ableton as your primary DAW…

TM: “When I first started out, I used Cubase on a PC. Pre-audio, I moved across to Logic on a big tower Mac, and then I moved to Berlin about ten years ago, because I got a job at Ableton. So I started using it as a sequencer to manipulate certain samples, but I don’t really use any of the VSTs. For me, in terms of workflow and using the clips view, we’ll sample off records or use loops and start throwing as many things together as possible until we have something that feels right, then we’ll freestyle-record a live arrangement.”  

TM: “It’s so easy to edit in terms of getting in and chopping stuff up, compared to Logic anyway. Ableton was built from the ground up with this sort of thing in mind, and then they’ve bolted on things to help people make electronic music afterwards, whereas Logic was made for recording bands.”

Some say Ableton misses the precision control that a DAW like Logic affords, but you wouldn’t necessarily agree with that?

TM: “I don’t know; if I record my 101 into Ableton it sounds pretty bang on. I’ve used Logic for years and years, but it comes back to the speed thing again. Perfection is unattainable, and the closer you get, the harder it is. If you listen to a record in a club environment, as a consumer you’re not going to be considering whether the front of the hi-hat is as transient as it would have been had someone mixed it on Logic. Good dance music’s not about precision for me; if you can convey a feeling using machines and samples, you’re doing well.”

WS: “It’s the same thing as WAVs and MP3s, and people saying you can’t play MP3s in clubs. If you’re playing off a really low bit rate, it might make a difference, but most people don’t really care. If you’ve written a good hook, it’s highly doubtful that 20% of detail is not going to make that record connect anymore.”

You’ve got an Allen & Heath GS3 Mixer, which is a big 16-channel desk. Are you running all your hardware through that and into the DAW?

TM: “That’s right - it all comes through the mixer. The last studio I was at, I had the card outputs coming through the desk and would mix a two-track through it. But again, it comes back to speed. I was a bit impatient, so I mix in the box now. If I’m recording any of the synths, I want it to sound as right as it can to start with. For example, I’ll have the Sherman in the chain and smash the EQ on the GS3 or record it into Ableton and use the EQs there; generally the SoftTube Trident or Waves SSL.”

And you’re using the Akai MPC2500 XL for sampling. What do you like about that device and what sort of sounds are you sampling?

TM: “I did some work with Bicep - creating some t-shirts rather than anything musical - I saw the boys in the studio and Andy was waxing lyrical about the 2500. It cost me about £500 on eBay, so I use the MPC for drums and have ZIPs of various samples from squillions of sources. I always used to have Akai samplers - the first piece of kit I ever bought was the S3000XL with a chunky £5,000 bank loan from Lloyds. When I was speaking to my mastering engineer and mentioned I had a 2500, he said that when he got rid of his Akai, he didn’t realise the space it was filling until he got another one.”

WS: “And you can actually play it a little bit as well. With the pads you can play stuff out, which, again, allows you to create things you wouldn’t be able to do programming stuff.”

TM: “My cheap tip would be: if you’re going to buy a 2500, get other people’s sound libraries. When I first got it, I bought some hip-hop drum kits on eBay from someone who had lovingly gone through and sampled loads of DJ Premier records.”

And you have the Boss DR-110 - otherwise known as ‘Dr Rhythm’. Is that to get some of those authentic house and techno beats?

TM: “I read an interview with King Britt, and he was talking about the DR-110 being the last analogue drum machine that Roland built. So I looked on eBay and it was only £120. It’s doesn’t work very well and only has one mono output, but it sounds somewhere between a 606 and an 808 in terms of its snare and hats. It’s completely un-editable, but it has a crunchy goodness and personality.”

How are you getting the balance between a sequenced sound and the improvised synth work that we can hear on some of the tracks?

WS: “Some of it will be me playing really badly and some will be Tom playing it considerably better, but even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. We both know what we like, and sometimes Tom will walk out and leave me on the Rhodes for half an hour and I’ll have one chord sequence that’s passable and that we both like.”

TM: “We tend to put stuff in record mode straight away, whether playing on the Rhodes, the Juno-60 or the 101, but it’s played by humans. The only sequencing will be using the MPC to trigger the arpeggiator input into the Juno. It doesn’t go into Ableton as MIDI; they’re literally played in as audio but nudged around a bit if they’re slightly loose.”

Are the synths going through effects pedals on the way in?

TM: “Anything to anything really - it’s more about figuring out what a track needs. If it’s more atmospheric-sounding, I’ve got two delay pedals and the Hologram Electronics Dream Sequence. The Sherman Filterbank 2 is a filter/creative distortion unit, so if something needs a bit of edge, it will go through that.”

So you’ve decided to release three EPs over four months, which is quite a heavy schedule - almost like releasing an album in stages…

WS: “The turnover of music is really quick, so we wanted to be ever-present for a short chunk of time. I think we’ll take a break for a few months and maybe do another series in the spring of next year. It’s nice to be able to make something and get it out quick rather than have it sitting around. Hopefully, people will connect the dots and notice something. It’s not really album music - if we did an album it would have to be a different incarnation.”

Primitive Trust are releasing three EPs over four months, catch up with the latest at the Aus Music website.

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