On this week’s Pedals with the Pros, we had the chance to interview techno icon and style extraordinaire, Lady Starlight. She has done just about everything in the biz, from designing costumes for and performing with Lady Gaga to making relentless modular techno alongside industry mainstays Judas Priest and Surgeon.
What originally got you into making techno?
I went to my first rave in 1994. However, my experience was from a dancing perspective. I never even thought about DJing much less producing techno at that time. So it was never based on seeing a DJ/producer and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do.’ I came back to techno from a conceptual perspective.
The key moment of inspiration for me was revisiting “Stardancer” by Mike Banks under his alias The Martian. The track is around eight minutes long, and it struck me how a track could appear to be nothing but a repetitive loop, but kept me coming back to listen again and again. It was fascinating, and I realised I must figure out how to weave this kind of magic for myself.
People would not typically expect a DJ who plays Crass, Slayer, Iron Maiden, or Van der Graaf Generator at Lady Gaga concerts to also be someone who makes hard modular techno. Could you talk about the relationship you’ve formed between these musical worlds?
It kind of makes no sense to me either! My attitude is and has always been, at the risk of sounding flaky, that one’s path is set out by the universe and life is about having the courage to follow it.
It is not easy. You must be fearless and not worry what people will think. Suddenly changing your musical direction and/or image can signify a lack of authenticity and integrity. So you must know and believe in that gut feeling that draws you towards something and risk the judgement of others. There is actually nothing more authentic than following what you feel passionate about.
My experience has been super positive, I’ve found that people really do recognise honest intentions.
Your live techno sets are full of stark sonic contrasts that somehow naturally evolve into one another. How does your experience as a DJ inform your track pacing, and your choices of when to change up motifs in a live set?
Definitely. Since I started DJing rock music, the most important thing was creating a narrative with track selection rather than the technical aspect. So with my live performances, taking the crowd on a journey continues to be the most important thing.
What are the main pieces of gear in your current live rig?
I only have 3 pieces of gear, plus 2 effects pedals. So they are all the main pieces!
My Eurorack case, Elektron Machinedrum, and MFB Tanzbär drum machine.
Contrary to common intuition that more gear would make a better live techno set, actually the key is to have as little gear as possible. You have to move quickly and you only have two hands. Focus on a few instruments and know them inside and out.
The main piece is my eurorack system. It takes a long time to get your own rack together. You must have a clear idea of how you as an individual artist want it to function to create the desired results. There aren’t any true shortcuts, it simply takes time. Time to develop your sound and techniques as an artist, and time to figure out your workflow and what modules are best for you.
Unfortunately, this can be quite expensive, since you usually learn more about what you need by getting the wrong thing.
You sing high praise for the Elektron Machinedrum — what do you think makes it shine so much brighter than other drum machines?
Although it’s technically a drum machine, I use it as a sampler. It’s been the main source of my lead sounds for years now. My entire first EP was written on the Machinedrum.
It’s not the easiest machine to learn, but once you get the workflow of Elektron sequencers down, you have a hard time working on anything else. The limitations of it are actually what give it such a great sound. It only has 12-bit sampling capabilities and because it lacks an SD card slot or USB input, the only convenient way to get samples on it is to record directly into the machine. As a result, it has a direct and gritty sound that would probably take several plugins in post production to recreate.
Is the H9 more of a technical tool or more of a mystery box in your sets? Does it fill a specific role, or does it do a variety of things?
During live sets it only has a specific role. That role changes over time depending on the other pedals I’m using, but almost always either reverb, delay or as a looper. Since I only have two hands, it can get pretty hectic during a live set. I need to know that each pedal will do one particular thing when I send a signal to it. In the studio, I’m free to use all its capabilities!
Where does the H9 fit into your signal chain — is it a send effect, or do you plug instruments right into it?
It depends on the kind of set I am performing. For a straight ahead techno set I will use it as a send effect. If I’m doing an experimental improv set, my go-to is the H9 looper plugged directly into one of my synth voices from my eurorack.
What would you say runs through your H9 the most — drums, modular synths, or samples?
I use the H9 almost exclusively on synth voices.
My sound is very focused on the lead elements. Whereas with a lot of techno, the percussion is the star. I think this has a lot to do with the reference points artists have when coming into techno. My rock background definitely pointed me towards lead elements.
I see prog rock and techno as closely related genres, so prog is the genre that informs my style of techno the most. This will probably make some prog fans gasp in horror!
With my drum voices in a supporting role, I find keeping them clean to be most effective.
You have four Strymon pedals — why is the H9 still in your kit?
The H9 is completely versatile. It sounds incredible with any audio source. While I obviously love Strymon pedals, they need a large dynamic range to truly shine. Great for my modular voices, but the H9 sounds just as great with gritty 12-bit samples as it does with a modular oscillator.
Why modular and not a laptop?
When I first started making techno, the obvious starting point was a computer. However, I didn’t truly engage with the process until I got my first piece of gear, the Roland MC-505 Groovebox.
In recent years, modular has become really trendy, but my decision to use gear has nothing to do with being ‘cool’, it’s simply the way my brain works. All the expensive equipment in the world won’t make the content of your music any better. In fact, I’m more impressed with artists that make good music with little to no equipment.
My jump from traditional synths and drum machines to modular came from performing with Surgeon. From a purely sonic perspective, his modular rack just demolished the sound of my gear. When you hear that kind of power, especially in relation to what you are doing, the bar is raised and there’s basically no turning back!
If you could only keep three modules in your rack, which three would they be and why?
There is a difference between three modules that could function to make a useful sound and what my three favourite modules are…
Function: MFB SEQ-03, Verbos Electronics Complex Oscillator and Make Noise Optomix.
Favourite: MFB SEQ-03, Verbos Electronics Complex Oscillator, Tip Top Audio ONE.
With the eurorack format, size is actually quite important. The more modules you can get in your case, the more diversity you can get with your sound.
So, in general, the best modules are those that can do a lot while taking up as little space as possible.
For techno, sequencer modules are probably the most important. I love the MFB SEQ-03 because it’s compact and incredibly versatile. Each output can sequence either gate, CV, AD envelope and LFO. Also, each sequence can playback forward, backward, up and down or random. You could potentially need 4+ modules to get all these features.
The Verbos Electronics Complex Oscillator is a dual oscillator that has great sound shaping capabilities that tear up a sound system!
Tip Top Audio ONE is a tiny sampling module that can basically do anything. It can handle samples of any length and play them back in several different ways. It allows you to add different sounds that you couldn’t otherwise get from your rack. I especially love it for long shifting pads.
Who are your techno icons? And your overall musical icons?
Peter Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Rush, Small Faces, David Bowie, New York Dolls, MC5, Elvis Costello, Crass, Subhumans, Surgeon, Mike Banks, Jeff Mills, Robert Hood, Dave Angel….the list goes on and on..always hard to narrow this list down!
For you, fashion, music, and performance are completely interwoven. When you’re working on new music, are you also working on new outfits, new styles, and new performance ideas?
I prefer the term style to fashion. In my mind, the word fashion refers to a consumerist status symbol-driven industry, and style is more about individual expression.
The thread that runs through everything I’ve done over the years is a desire to non-verbally communicate to people what I love. It’s only the avenue in which I express it that has changed over the years.
I’m a shy person. You would think that a shy person’s worst nightmare would be to stand out by dressing completely out of the ordinary. But for me it was the opposite. My appearance communicated everything for me, without me having to say anything.
Clothing is inseparable from performance art. Often the only object in the performance is your body. So how it is presented IS the show.
Your music obviously needs to stand on its own, but I think people underestimate the power of presentation. Style can be a tool to extend your message. I like to use my style as a way of defying whatever the expectations are of any given situation. Not just to be a contrarian, but also as an attempt to serve as a role model for younger generations by presenting an alternative to following the script in whatever art form/profession they choose. As artists, we are privileged to have a platform to contribute something positive to society. It’s important to me to use this and not make it about adoration and my ego.
You’ve had an incredible career arc… what could possibly be next??
I’ll let you know when the universe tells me!
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