Interview: R&S’ Paula Temple on Techno, Technology and Tolerance

A sit-down with the blistering techno producer, back making tracks more than a decade after she first started.

If you want a gauge of how well techno is doing in 2014, there might be no better measure than the renaissance of techno artist Paula Temple. Colonized, her debut EP for R&S released last year, emerged at a time when industrial techno was coming back into vogue, and it was this wellspring of breezeblock kicks and grinding rhythms from which the Lancashire-born producer drew inspiration after having dropped out of the music industry for six years.

Releasing her first record 12 years ago on Materials, the British label run by Chris McCormack – one of techno’s most uncompromising figures – Temple asserted a reputation as a producer of rhythmically fluid techno that could be by turns brutal and beautiful. Though Temple was not prolific, her records were singled out by broadcasting legend John Peel, and featured on mix CDs by Jeff Mills and Sheffield label Dust Science.

In the mid-’00s, a move to Leeds brought about an unexpected career change – Temple became a teacher. Losing interest and inspiration in electronic music, she abandoned the industry and dedicated herself to mentoring young people from underprivileged backgrounds in music and technology. It was at this time that she became a certified trainer for Ableton, which cemented her credentials as an evangelist for the possibilities of technology in producing and DJing (it’s also worth noting her role in co-developing the MXF8, a pioneering MIDI controller itself inspired by Ableton).

Were it not for a bitter, traumatic dispute with her now former employers, it’s likely that she would never have resurfaced. Soon, Temple will release another EP for R&S and remixes for The Knife and Perera Elsewhere. Temple will also launch a new label, Noise Manifesto, a platform that pledges to “prioritise bodies and identities who have been kept invisible despite outstanding talent and achievements.”

Paula Temple - Miyako

Your first release was on Chris McCormack’s Materials label. Can you tell me how that came about, and how you met him?

Our mutual friend Ben from Space DJs was doing an online live mix – there was this forum attached to it – and there was only me and Chris in this chatroom, and I logged on and he was already in there and he was like, “Oh, you’re Paula Temple?” And I said, “Err, yeah!” I’d been buying his records, and then we just started talking from there. He was like, “Oh, do you make any music?” and I was, but I had no intention of doing anything with it. So he asked me to send him some stuff, and I did. He was really into it, so he made a decision to make an exception for his label, and I was the only other artist that had released something for him. But I think we connected, I think there was more than just music. I think he was very careful with who he works with, the mindset of people. This idea of integrity – it’s a stupid word because everyone claims they have integrity – but there was something about our own way of thinking, about not being carried away with the typical marketing and stuff that goes on in the industry.

What did you like about Chris’ approach in that respect?

He wasn’t strategic in any sort of way. He didn’t care about the industry so much. Of course he wanted to make a living, but it wasn’t at the cost of what his vision was, the music. He didn’t want to sacrifice that, at all. He cared about the quality of what he was doing, what he was creating. He was obsessed with technique as well, and with the creativity, and of course there’s a lot of technique that goes on with techno. And that’s why we developed this nickname for him, Professor Compressor. He was such a genius with that, it was such a crucial technique for techno. I think we just met… It’s almost like, I don’t know what punk is but he really rejected the fodder and the bullshit that you don’t have to swallow, and he was certainly one of those people that didn’t swallow all that bullshit that was going on. Maybe he saw the same in me, I don’t know.

Chris McCormack announced in the mid-’00s that he was quitting the music industry, which does seem to back up what you say about him. He seemed unhappy at the quality of the music in general, and also disillusioned with techno specifically (“I am very sad that ultra safe records with bongos and zero talent are what makes techno tick these days”). How was your relationship with him at that time, as someone you were releasing through and discussing music with?

I remember we talked about it a lot. We started a label together, and he started doing mastering as well at that point. We had these ideas. The label didn’t go anywhere because of the way distributors were really disappearing, they were all suddenly going bankrupt, it was a chain of shit for everyone who was owed money, which was mostly the really small label owners. They tended to be the artists as well. So they were going bankrupt, but started up again with their debts cleared. So it was like, “What the fuck?” And at the same time the quality of techno just seemed, at that time, [to drop]. There was a lot of loop techno. It was release, release, release and it was just saturating everything.

There was a lot of loop techno. It was release, release, release and it was just saturating everything.

And you shared this view of his as well?

I was losing inspiration. But to be honest, I was so busy co-developing the MXF8 (with Gerard Campbell) so my instinct was to put a lot more into that. We then developed the MXF8 and toured with that for a little bit. The last thing Chris did before his exit was a Blacklisted release, and he called it Erase Techno. We were talking about that kind of mentality. It was just this moment of rejection really, this boringness that was seeping in. For me, I lost motivation after the MXF8 was developed. It didn’t feel like there was anything to inspire me after that, so developing technology was one thing that kept me going a little bit.

Tell me about the MXF8.

It stands for MIDI-crossfade, eight channels. At the time there wasn’t really anything like it. So being able to perform live, in a DJ way, but with your own material or other people’s material. It was inspired by early Ableton, but you could use it with Logic, Cubase, Reason, any of them. The flexibility of what Ableton Live introduced – of being able to perform live, especially the session view, being able to capture things and improvise – that was a big influence on the development of the MXF8. It just gave us the freedom to perform live, in a DJ way, or perform like a DJ in your production.

Basically, Gerard and I had become friends through his first invention called the Notron. Claude Young introduced me to Gerard. He ended up coming with me to all my gigs, and I got a Notron, and then he asked me if I would be interested in co-developing the MFX8, and then he wanted me involved with the follow-up to the Notron. We just became really good friends. What I liked about him as well was that he didn’t want his inventions solely focused on guys. He was interested in this being used for everybody. Even the tiniest details, like making sure the machine worked on a different size of hand, not just a male hand. These were the constant tests we were doing as it was being developed.

It took over my life. After that there was zero opportunity to do anything creative.

Shortly after the MXF8, you seemed to drop out of the industry at around the same time as Chris McCormack, and you became a teacher. What were the circumstances behind that?

I’d been touring quite a lot with the MXF8, and then I felt like I’d achieved everything that I needed to achieve with that. So the next thing I wanted to do was an album. Then, from taking the time out and having recently moved to Leeds, I wanted to stay connected with people and find out what was going on and be useful as well. So I started working in the community, and I was working with young people – especially those in the poorest areas of Leeds.

I started getting involved in workshops, and it really opened my eyes to how fucking tough it is for young people in those areas. I felt the situation was really shit for them and I didn’t know how best to do anything other than what I was doing, so I ended up going into it in a big way. A lot of them were in desperate situations, or in a situation where they’d given up on themselves because there was no-one else believing in them. Everyone had told them quite the opposite, that they’d amount to nothing.

So I just ended up completely ignoring the album and I just went full-time into making projects, and it became bigger and it became an organisation, it was started by the two of us. It got bigger and bigger. There were premises and we were employing people. We were setting up all these creative technology projects, and then job programmes as well to get into the creative industry. It just grew and grew and grew in the five or six years. It took over my life. After that there was zero opportunity to do anything creative.

Paula Temple 'Colonized' techno drum design in Ableton Live 9 + Push

To suspend your album and music career to pursue this work, you must have gotten a lot out of it.

Being really honest, maybe I got a lot out of it initially. That sense, that good feeling where you’re giving something that you’ve taken for granted, like the knowledge you’ve developed, but it actually means something to someone else. They feel transformed a little bit by the knowledge, but [moreso] because someone has also spent the time with them and believes in them. That side of it was more important.

As the organisation was growing, I was getting particularly good at getting contracts and deals. And by doing the shitty side – the spreadsheets, and making sure financially we were pushing to be sustainable – it ended up being that I was being pushed further away from teaching because all of this other stuff was time-consuming. I was having to go to so many boring, bureaucratic meetings with the local council or meet funders. It moved me further away from the young people I was doing it for. It ended up feeling like a huge responsibility to make sure that this kept going.

So, you’d been at the organisation for five, six years and all of a sudden you were sacked, and you took the organisation to court over it. What happened?

I couldn’t even believe that this even could exist, but it did show me how it is in England. So I’m working my arse off. It was getting really tough because funding was getting cut back, but we were making breakthroughs. We were going in a miracle direction, and then, just out the blue, one of my staff members freaked out, I mean completely goes crazy – about seeing me and my girlfriend holding hands. It’s like, “Really!? Am I really here? Have I just entered a parallel universe?” But the disgust in this woman was so, you know, so extreme. The things that she said. The way that she went about her next actions, I was like, “I can’t believe this is happening,” just because she couldn’t understand this really harmless thing. I had a board at the time, a very weak board. The board wasn’t doing anything, basically.

Suddenly we were these characters to be hated, and so we were banned.

Regarding this situation?

No, the board wasn’t doing anything to help me that much. Trying to run everything on the ground, and to generate income, I brought in these people to sit on my board to help relieve me of some of the strategic work. But it ended up where I was doing the work for them as well. So we’d be discussing for months how we needed to develop the board, because all that was left on the board was three guys, and I was highly aware that this wasn’t healthy. And it became absolutely crystal clear when this staff member went to them threatening them about me, how damaging it is [for the organisation], for me to be seen holding hands.

[She said] funders would withdraw their funding; that clients would stop doing business with us; I was bullying the team; that I was damaging to young people. So they had a secret meeting and then they decided to sack my girlfriend, completely breaking employment law, never mind everything that the organisation stood for, which was meant to be a safe place for everybody. After that they took steps to squeeze me out to the point that I had to resign.

They made it impossible for me to work there. And after that they banned us from the premises, so all that goodwill and good feeling I’d built up with the young people on the team, suddenly we were these characters to be hated, and so we were banned. This was ridiculous! Where does it stop? That whole experience just really opened my eyes to what people are willing do to, and what they’re willing to sacrifice. When it comes to having respect for another human being, that’s easier to sacrifice.

This court case dragged on for a while. Tell me about what your state of mind was when you won it, and where did your thoughts turn to after that?

My mental health wasn’t good at all during that whole court case, and it got dragged out as well because they had loads of witnesses. It was a really crystal clear case of discrimination, but they thought having loads of witnesses who had nothing to say other than lies, which was really exhausting for everybody to have to listen to… but once the court procedures had started, even after the first two days I felt such relief. Here I am, going through a big crash in my life, then the case starts and then it’s like, “Wow, at last, the legal system is listening to this and finding it just as ridiculous,” and I did find such relief in knowing I wasn’t going insane, and that this is really ridiculous. Before the court case even ended, it really helped my mind.

The court case was still going on because of these extra witnesses they wanted to bring in, so extra dates were being added. It was meant to all conclude in October [2012], but they added these further witnesses, which meant they had to find more dates, which happened in January sometime. But in that gap, I suddenly had space in my head again. So I wrote some tracks in December, and then I only sent them to one place, which was R&S, and then they signed them in January. That happened really quickly, amongst the court case still going on.

Paula Temple - Colonized

Colonized” was a big change in direction for R&S when it came out in 2013, because the label seemed to be pushing a sound that was quite a distance away from industrial techno, or the sort of records it was putting out in the ’90s. Were you surprised when they told you they wanted to put it out?

I was surprised. My thinking at the time was… because, from running the organisation, I hadn’t listened to any music for the last six years. I had no idea what state techno was in. But I made these tracks, then I started checking out what was going on what was current. I was checking out R&S, and I was thinking, “Wow, this is so different.” My music clearly doesn’t fit in this kind of roster, but then they had the MPIA3 release, Truss’ project. There’s something about what they were doing that still made me think that they were the best people to test my music out with.

There’s something about the energy of what they were still doing to made me go, “I’ll ask these guys first and then they’ll direct me to where I needed to go,” and that’s how I approached. But they didn’t direct me at all, it was Renaat [Vandepapeliere, the co-founder of R&S] actually that went absolutely ballistic. He was going crazy on the spot, saying the craziest things, which made me think I’d entered another parallel universe, “This is too good to be true.” But it was true!

It’s not often that artists have a cycle, as you did in the mid-’00s, and then come back to sort of start again. How does it feel to be a new artist for the second time? Is it easier, or do you feel like you’re climbing a hill all over again?

Mentally it’s maybe a lot easier. I don’t really care about any career aspirations or anything like that, I really don’t give a shit. But mentally I feel ready this time. I’ve accepted me, my creative me, where I didn’t accept it before. I didn’t think I was any good. I just wasn’t ready for it, somehow. But now I’m really ready for it. It just feels right, right now. It doesn’t feel like a second time in a way, but I’m benefiting from coming at it for a second time mentally, because I know not to worry about certain things when I was younger. I much prefer it this time. The last time was just a warm up, like growing space.

Paula Temple live at R&S 30 years party, London

You said in a previous interview that the situation for female artists in techno had actually regressed from when you’d left the industry. Can you expand on that?

I remember coming back and [seeing] people thinking things had progressed, saying, “Oh, there’s a lot more women now in electronic music,” and I’m thinking, “No, there’s the same amount,” which isn’t progress at all. But looking at techno, which is a small genre, there are less artists that are visible. There are definitely lots of techno artists that are not male, but they’re not visible – and that is really interesting to see, to understand why they’re not visible, to see why they’re not supported, why they’re not being buzzed about in the same way that other artists are.

It’s been really interesting to have that clean break. I made my assumptions that things would’ve gone in one direction – a progressive direction – and then coming back and going, “No, it’s not.” It’s moreso obvious, especially in techno I think, on the dancefloor. Not on all dancefloors, and it doesn’t seem to be the case too much here in Berlin, thank goodness.

There was a moment I was like, God, I cannot wait to get behind the decks because at least I’ve got a safe space to dance.

I would go to a club and see another DJ and just be in the crowd, and I’m like, “Fucking hell, I’m the only woman here.” I never knew it to be like this. Or it would just be me and my friend. What was worse was the way we were being treated on the dancefloor. We didn’t feel safe, at all. There was a moment – this was before I started DJing again, which was in summer last year – and I was like, “God, I cannot wait to get behind the decks because at least I’ve got a safe space to dance.” And that’s a really sad thing to think. A really sad situation.

When I talked to people about it, nobody wanted to talk about it for starters. And then when I talk about, it’s talked like it is my problem for being a woman, for having this problem. And that’s another sad situation because it’s not really my problem, but it’s being put on me to be my problem. How do we reverse this? I mean, luckily, I moved to Berlin and people showed me a very different picture. There’s a lot of clubs here run by people who are really mindful, and they really want to create balance in everything that they do, and that’s really impressive.

But there’s a lot of places that I’ve left, places I don’t want to be in, that can’t even imagine to bring balance. They’ve got such a narrow perspective, that they’ve… I don’t know. I don’t know why it’s like that. Their position is blind to themselves, so they don’t see the problem, it doesn’t affect them, because they’re in a body that is completely safe and completely accepted. But it’s not a problem to them, so it doesn’t exist.

Planningtorock - Human Drama (Paula Temple 'Gender's Just A Lie' Remix)

How do you want to go about challenging this? Is that the aim of your Noise Manifesto label?

I don’t think it’s realistic to think I could even challenge this at all. I have zero expectations of having any kind of influence. But what I would like to do is offer a different kind of structure. A balanced structure. One that I feel comfortable working in, and to invite other artists only after taking a long time to observe them and to get an understanding of how they see things. And to be very careful about who I invite into the Noise Manifesto, if they’re really into it or not. And it’s just about offering a very different structure, and we’ll see.

It’s an experiment. Some people will get it, and be into it. And some people are just going to be into the music, and that’s fine. I don’t want to be in a position where I’m talking about it. I want to talk as little as possible about it – I just want the manifesto to say what it has to say. I accept the manifesto is not perfect. I’m sure there’ll be things I’ll learn about. My intentions are clear, and it would be nice to think that there are people who have been established in the industry for so long that will want to support this. I’ve kept it really low key for now because I’ve just wanted to find the right kind of people to start this off with.

The Noise Manifesto is... just about offering a very different structure.

I was really thinking maybe I shouldn’t pursue this, maybe this is going to take up way too much energy, and I don’t want to fight any more battles. I just want an easy life, and enjoy my creativity and enjoy all the joys it brings. So I’m like, “Do I really want to take this on, and for it to give me a whole bunch of headaches?” But so far, everyone’s been really embracing this. And really asking about it as well, and wanting to be part of it, so now I’m getting things in order to get it happening.

You’re a big advocate of technology, and it’s often, if not always, integrated into your performances. How has technology shaped your process, both as a producer and as someone who plays music to people?

That’s a really hard thing to answer, because when you work with it so closely it’s just part of your daily life. You can’t really separate where the process comes from anymore. One of the things that inspired Noise Manifeto was Donna Harraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. She talks a lot about this idea of what’s natural and what’s, you know, the way technology is, and our ways and means of survival. So we’re always adapting, always morphing or synthesising with technology so we become this kind of hybrid with technologies.

I don’t really think too deeply about how technology is affecting my process, or my output, but it seems like I’m hungry and always wanting to… maybe because I get bored easily – but discovering, trying new things, you know, without… fuck the manual, just let me turn the knobs and just see what happens. And if it doesn’t click with me straight away, I need to move on to the next thing, so it’s really kind of more intuitive really, if you can call turning knobs intuitive. That’s all I’m doing, just trying stuff and pressing every button and seeing what happens.

Photos: Tania Gualeni

By Ray Philp on July 1, 2014

On a different note