Slam: Going underground

If dance music is dead, why are the DJ/producer duo Slam busier than ever and playing to ecstatic crowds? Rob Nash finds there's life outside the mainstream
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The Independent Culture

We've heard a lot about the death of dance music. From where Stuart McMillan and Orde Meikle are standing, that diagnosis is implausible - and they are well qualified to judge, being involved in every part of the industry.

The Glaswegian DJ/producer duo, known as Slam, have a punishing DJ schedule, including frequent visits to Pressure, the club they run in Glasgow. They've just released their third album. They also run the Soma label, which, since it was set up, in 1991, has released about 150 singles and many albums - and brought Daft Punk to the world.

And they were in charge of the dance tent at T in the Park this summer, for the eighth year running. "It was phenomenal," McMillan says. "This was the best we've had. The capacity of the tent was 15,000, and from 6pm onward, the tent was full and you couldn't get in."

Meikle allows that the dance scene may be depleted "in the sense that there are not too many big firms spending big money on adverts any more. But," he insists, "you can hear the kids coming through. The underground is healthy. If the roots are healthy, you can be sure it will flower again some day." He chuckles at his turn of phrase.

"I still think dance is by far the most healthy medium, I really do," he continues. "Sometimes it's good to get a bit of distance between you and the majors and number-crunchers, to free up a healthier environment for more expressive music and things that are a bit left of centre. I think the future's looking rosy for electronica."

McMillan points to the demand for their DJing services as further evidence. "This year, we've been to Brazil and Japan, and we're going back to Japan. We're going to Australia again. We're booked up to the end of the year, which is nice at a time when people say things aren't happening."

In Scotland, Slam are the godfathers of the dance scene; in England, only Fatboy Slim in the late Nineties could claim to compare. They are admired by dance-music lovers around the world for their rip-roaring house and techno sets. But at T in the Park they took the opportunity to show off their new album, Year Zero. "It was the second live show we've done this year, and it was great," McMillan says. "T in the Park is special, simply for the fact that it's a home crowd. To showcase what you're doing to that many people is both nerve-racking and quite inspiring, you know?"

There is in the men's manner - alongside the confidence in the quality they bring to all parts of their game - an awareness of their good fortune in making a good living from doing what they love. Slam's records have sold solidly. The single "Positive Education" had a brief skirmish with the Top 40; "Lifetimes" charted in several continental countries; and their tech-house benchmark 2001 album, Alien Radio, has sold about 70,000 copies worldwide, a quarter of them in Britain. They have happily slipped into mentoring roles, through their label and through Somaskool, a dance-music workshop, which is happening in October for the second time.

A similar altruistic impulse seems to have been behind their recent Highlands tour, which took in rather different venues from the big clubs they usually play at. Most gigs were for 200 or 300 people - an experience McMillan describes as a "back-to-basics thing, kind of back to the old school, where you did go to out-of-the-way places".

McMillan and Meikle have been around in dance music from the start: they set up as DJs in 1988 and hit the ground at a sprint. McMillan recalls: "The first Slam nights were in a small dingy club. The first night, we had about 100 people, and about 60 per cent of them were friends. In three weeks, the place was bursting. In six months, we went from playing to 100 people to 3,000 at the Tramway, with 3,000 waiting outside. The line-up was Inner City, 808 State, Graeme Park, Slam. It was awesome."

Those blast-from-the-past names are a reminder of how Slam have weathered the years, building their reputation for crowd-pleasing DJ sets. Their recording last year for Fabric's CD mix series is a master class in how to construct a tech-house set.

They describe their slot at the 2003 Homelands festival as a highlight of the year, but in fact they had been left in a tight spot by the Detroit DJ-producer Jeff Mills, who played a bloody-minded set of technical perfection but rather less aesthetic appeal. "Sometimes he gets into that sonic headcharge thing," McMillan says gently, "which is cool if you're an enthusiast and love electronic music, if you're aware of all the Axis 12-inches and blah-de-blah-blah, but if you're not, then... I think he's on a mission just now - which is kind of cool - to be almost more purist than he's been before."

That's the opposite of Slam's direction on the new album. The sound has moved on from the intense, abstract tunes of Alien Radio, though the rich basslines and sweeping string figures are still present. "The difference", McMillan says, "is that we've gone back to electro-funk, stuff that we were influenced by in the beginning - Tom Tom Club, Mantronix - and tried to incorporate that into a more modern sound."

Meikle agrees: "The vibe for this album was: sit down, dust off the record collection and listen to some older, varied stuff. We'd have an idea - 'Oh, I liked the sound on that' - and so little piles grew up around the studio in the run-up to getting the album started." No sampling, though. "You listen to things for the types of instruments they were using - the sound of a hi-hat or something - and you go away and recreate it."

But the main difference is in the vocals. Alien Radio has two vocal tracks; seven of the 10 tracks on the new record have full, song-form vocals, performed by an intriguing roster of collaborators: Tyrone Palmer and Dot Allison, both contributors to Alien Radio, are joined by Ann Saunderson of Inner City, Billie Ray Martin and others. Meikle says: "When you're in a studio environment, if you're used to just the two of you being there and you add a third party, you're never sure what might be thrown out the other end. It can work for you: other times, it can all fall apart. It's a liquid process.

"Had some of them not turned out too well," he continues, "then this album might not have come further down the road of that vocal journey. For many years, we worked with vocal snippets that were sampled. It's an instrument we're still learning to master, voice and vocals."

Though Slam are delighted with the work of all the vocalists, there's one person McMillan wishes he could have worked with. "I would have loved to work with Joe Strummer, because I'm a big, big, big Clash fan," he says, with evident regret. "And he died. We tried to get him on Alien Radio. My friend Jeff, who runs T in the Park, knows Joe's manager. It was one of those things, like, 'Do you think we can get Joe?' It never happened, but it would have been great."

Adding lyrics to dance music transforms it: the absence of meaningful verbal content is part of what makes club music so mind-altering. A couple of tracks on Year Zero do tap into main-room-at-2am madness, but Slam felt, perhaps as a consequence of growing older, that the time had come to voice some of their feelings. The dominant moods are wistful, nostalgic and despairing, most obviously on the lead-off track and next single, "This World", on which Palmer laments the state of the world, but allusively enough to avoid clumsiness and cliché. "'This World' came from frustration in watching the media, the Fox Channel, when we were abroad, and feeling helpless; that you're being washed along with this thing that you realise not that many people actually support," Meikle says.

Perhaps the strongest song, and the second single from the album, is "Lie to Me". The lyrics, enchantingly sung by Saunderson, cleverly invert the expected trope. "It's about lying to yourself," Meikle says. "That ties in with the whole watching-the-news thing and the self-deception - having watched atrocities, then to pick up the phone and order room-service. I think people do that very easily these days - switch off and are pacified despite horrendous images on the TV."

Exploration of states of mind runs through the album. Meikle outlines the principal motifs. "Dependency is one..." Meikle cackles darkly. "It's not in our make-up to write a song about something benign. There's always been a dark edge to our music."

McMillan says: "One record we regret not being able to put out properly was the Daft Punk album, which got snatched up by Virgin. That would have been great to hang on to and do properly, but we never sit back and regret things. Most of the releases on Soma, we're pretty proud of."

Rightly so, as that output is of a uniformly high standard. Recent notable releases include a single by the Swedish powerhouses Adam Beyer and Jesper Dahlback, a superb 12-inch of French-tinged techno by the Dublin newcomers Hystereo, and the spirited electro album by Vector Lovers.

McMillan modestly describes the Soma operation thus: "We set it up in 1991 as a vehicle for our own stuff. The first release was our first single, 'Eterna'. The second single was by Dot Allison's band, One Dove. And we kept it going from there."

'Year Zero' and the single 'Lie to Me' are out now on Soma. The Slam Boat Party is in Glasgow on Sunday. Slam play live at Sankeys Soap, Manchester, 29 October; SNAFU, Aberdeen, 5 November; Back to Basics, Leeds, 6 November (