Is Peter Ford the last survivor of the acid years? Or is he plotting new courses for techno in the UK? Nathan Webb found out.
"When acid house kicked, the groove was right." Sitting in a North London chippy, Peter Ford, UK house pioneer and the original acid baby recalls the impact of acid house, the music that blazed a neon trail across the late eighties and routed the nervous systems of anyone who heard it. His own early emissions had a similar effect. Seminal trax like 'Oochy Coochy and 'Flowers' were psychedelia for the machine age, the records that got a whole generation jacking. For Ford they were a way of translating his own enthusiasm and excitement for the new sound into a tangible form. "I was living a very basic life at the time, living in a bedsit, but I had pirate radio access. They played this kind of new electronic, abstract, body music, whatever you want to call it - acid - and I was off. It was a real revolutionary moment.
Ten years after the event and acid house's dynamic energies now seem well and truly dispersed. At the time the exuberance of acid's hyperkinetic, hedonistic abandon threw the cerebral afro-futurism of the developing Detroit scene into sharp relief. But the UK's bedroom producers were quick to canonise the Belville three and turned their alien frequencies into a definitive and authoritive blueprint. Writing in i-D in 1995, Kwodo Eshun called it "a burning, helpless infatuation" and there's little doubt that techno's veneer of sophistication, its shimmering surfaces and emotional peaks appealed to those seeking to distance themselves from the accelerated mania of the swiftly mutating rave scene. If any vestige of acid's liberating spirit remains today. it resides in the attitude of techno's fiercely independent centres of activity. Acid and rave culture's rejection of the 'Star' system (for perhaps the first time in history, rave was a youth subculture that was devoid of spectacle - in the rock'n'roll sense the implicit notion that the performer is more talented, more important and more 'special' than the audience), its mistrust of corporate manoeuvring and the desire to operate within small, self-sustaining networks all inform the philosophy of techno's latter-day imagineers.

Philosophy isn't too strong a word to use when describing the approach of technos vanguardists. For Ford, like many others caught in the loop, techno isn't merely music, it's a way of life and a code of ethics. In Ford's words, "It's about trying to learn about yourself and what you do, working with other people who inspire you and you respect. With techno you only really get out what you put in." It's for this reason that ford plays down his historic contribution to electronic dance music. Like fellow UK innovator Andrew Weatherall or Detroit first-waver Carl Craig, he's an artist who has consciously extricated himself from the burden of his legacy, switching on to electronica's boundless possibilities and asserting the need to participate in techno's evolutionary process. It's allowed Ford to move on, to reformat and fine tune his sound, unlike some of his 80s contemporaries (Derrick May in particular) who believed their own legends and so became tied to the roots of a musical orthodoxy.

Ford's musical stance also betrays another facet of the modern technocracy's mindset - the urge to protect and survive. With breakbeat (be it trip-hop or drum'n'bass) grabbing all the column inches, you'd be forgiven for thinking that techno completely surrendered the cutting edge. Ford believes that this current state of affairs isn't such a bad thing - it might even ensure techno's longevity. "Techno's had occasional attention, perhaps enough to sustain it. But you've got to free yourself up from any kind of dependency on the industry or the press. The bottom line is your tracks. It's your statement in a way. And you can't lie." He envisages Techno as a Darwinian ecosystem, stating that "techno has a natural way of deciding whether something's been done with the right attitude or not." When techno scurried underground it destablised itself, throwing off its allegiances to the past. There was no longer a single point of focus, no utopian ideal t aspire to. As a result, music making flourished, with disparate cells across the globe producing highly idiosyncratic pieces of plastic. In 1997 techno is wildstyle all over again, teeming with richness and diversity: contrast the stripped down techfunk and dub-warped ambience of Germany's Chain Reaction and Tractor labels with the glistening soundscapes emitted by the Szyergy set-up in Japan. Elsewhere, Mille Plateaux have consolidated their position as Europe's most intriguing and enlightened operators, reconciling sonic sorcery with post-structuralist theory. And the electro-pranks pulled off by Patrick Pulsinger and fiends cannot adequately be compared to anybody else's output. It's difficult to even try and describe what techno is right now and that can only be a good thing.

In Britain imprints like A13, GPR, Pure Plastic, ART, Likemind and Ifach (the label run by Ford with Mark Broom) all kept the faith in their own low-key way, riding the wave of a particularly British kind of mid-tempo, melodic techno. Like many of the UK labels, Ifach's whole aura is one of carefully cultivated mystery, evinced by the minimal design and absence of non-essential information. Ford denies he's deliberately steered the label in the direction of underground obscurity. "Obviously the music's the most important thing - for us it's enough - but we wanted the label's identity to be distinctive without being too in your face. It's more laziness than anything else, we just don't want to deal with all that information. But it's good because it allows the label to develop without the attention being focused on unnecessary details." More recently, Ford's diverted some of his energy into the Trelik label, working with Eon on less esoteric, more adrenaline-fuelled material. "It's music for parties," he explains, "but parties with a twist."

With his fourth long player, 'Headphoneasy Rider", Ford has fused the contrasting approaches of the Ifach and Trelik labels, switching between austere but always funky grooves and analogue warmth and back again. It bears the imprint of Ford's frequent visits to Berlin, which he claims is almost like a second home to him. It's his most cohesive album since 1988's 'Fordtrax', even if that title seems as if it's aimed at techno's armchair contingent. Turns out Ford has some misgivings in this area. "It's probably the wrong title. People might think it's a chill-out album." This isn't aural fodder for the headphonauts. Unlike, say, DJ Shadow's work, an intricately-woven audio-collage that needs to be studiously unpicked through the kind of deep listening headphones afford, Ford's new album has a dry, upfront sound where all the elements are clearly defined in the mix. Everything can be heard on the first listen. "But it should work on headphones, just like it should work on a crappy Tandy stereo or through the bassbins in a club. All those elements are important." Asked why he's reactivated his Baby Ford alter ego after five years away and Ford reveals that it's a way of escaping from the anonymity of some of his other ventures. "I've used the Baby Ford name again because it was a way of being more direct. The name taps into peoples awareness. I'm just not trying to be too cagey, y'know. There's nothing to hide."

After a decade on the scene, Peter Ford remains committed to techno's revolutionary format. There's a sense of awe in the way he speaks about its synapse-stretching possibilities, its ability to bathe the listener in an electronic afterglow. This is techno as belief system, founded on the power of a mystic trinity. "Modern electronic music is for the mind, the body and the soul. And if those three things click you can make people inspired and feel good. That's all you can hope for."

Nathan Webb


IFACH With Mark Broom
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