Our resident sonic scientist A.O.Dohn had a good natter to a refreshingly nuanced and observant Kangding Ray about the ideas, emotions and sounds built into his excellent new album ‘Hyper Opal Mantis’ on the lovely Stroboscopic Artefacts. 

Having spent much of his 10+ years career balancing experimental electronic music with more club-oriented influences, Kangding Ray’s new album ‘Hyper Opal Mantis’ tips the scales slightly in f(l)avour of techno. Thus, Kangding Ray, real name David Letellier, has released his new album on Stroboscopic Artefacts, where he’s previously only been releasing EPs.

Within his subtle change of direction, Letellier manages to camouflage reflections on many of the tightly wound relations inherent in techno music, -culture, and –production. Relations with influences that seep through the cracks in the dance floor and merge with the world outside the club. Sticking to his ethos of music and sound being tools for connecting and achieving emotional responses, Letellier sets out to elucidate and comment on these relations, or interconnections. He proclaims in the press release that his intention is to do so by interpreting them as different states of desire. I think this is to be understood in the broadest of senses, not only as the feeling and the physiology but also ‘desire’ as a mechanical tension in a taut wire connecting two objects, wanting to snap. The abbreviation ‘CV’, defining the analog signal controlling certain synthesizers, is short for “Control Voltage”, with voltage being a synonym for electric potential: A currently unrealized ability, a possibility, something to be desired. The melody wants to resolve, but will it be allowed to?

I guess I’m not really making any sense, but luckily, I got to talk to Letellier over Skype. He does a lot better job of explaining what it’s all about than I do, so let’s just get started.

First off, congratulations on number 6, that’s a lot of albums. Do you feel an affinity to the format?

Yes. The album format represents a different way of listening to music than what is the current norm, I think. But also especially from my perspective as the creator, it represents another way of relating to my creations. A lot of people and artists, especially from the newer generation are more into doing a track on Thursday and releasing it on Soundcloud on Friday. I’m more from another school, which considers albums as landmarks, so I invest a lot of work, thought, and energy into them, and they represent artistic statements for me. It’s probably a very old school way of thinking, but I believe, for me, it’s still the best way to represent my work, to get the concept behind the sounds across.

The concept of Hyper Opal Mantis is outlined in its accompanying text as a triptych on three states of desire, can you elaborate on that?

I used to be more on what you could call ‘the borders’ between experimental and club music. I’ve always found myself on this edge, releasing albums for Raster Noton and EPs for Stroboscopic Artefacts. Meanwhile, I wanted to give something back to the techno scene, to make a proper techno album, both merging and juxtaposing the style I’ve developed over the years with the (hidden) rules of functionality that “traditional” techno demands. Because of this wish, I started to question myself: What is my own relation to the notion of functionality? Through this question I could explore dichotomies between notions of function, body, sensuality on one side and technology and artificiality on the other, in electronic music, but outside those limits as well, via the music. This established tensions in the album; trying to reconnect with pure sensuality to through technology, and also to connect with the ethos of liberation and freedom, which is transported by the rave and techno culture, and dance music culture in general.  – Which I think has far more profound and political values compared to how it is represented in the media. There is a fundamental act of resistance in dance music culture…

I wanted to express all of these complex notions through the album, somehow. I thought of the previously mentioned dichotomous tensions as energy, as different states of desire, primal, sensual, thriving of love and happiness, but also destructive and fatal.

I can’t help noticing you subtly expressing the connection between dance music culture and politics. You also recently stated that club music is, in fact, intrinsically political, and “even in its blatant inefficiency, it can still transport ideas” …

That was in dialogue with a very interesting article on the Quietus. I was really happy to read it, and see my own ideas and concepts reaching through to the audience, and being retold in a music magazine. It shows that we can have a dialogue about these kinds of topics through music, and use the music as a vehicle for ideas, social and political statements that go way beyond “this is a groovy tune”.

In general, (e.g. with articles such as this) it seems like dance music culture is starting to re-evaluate (if it’s staying true to) its core values, or maybe more so, to consider its raison d’être?

Yeah, these are times where people are forced to take positions. For example, I see people start questioning the constant ‘online activism’, which I also see as really inefficient. Does being offended online really help? – But at the same time I think there’s a desire to have an actual impact on the real world, which apparently is really not easy to achieve. We see things we don’t understand, and reality is often far more complex than we can imagine, so we try within our own means to change things. We at least try.

I guess you could call Hyper Opal Mantis one attempt at that, in a way. You mentioned it is the first album on Stroboscopic Artefacts?

I’ve been working on the album for quite some time, Luca [‘Lucy’, the label owner] has been asking for it for quite some time. But for what seems like years and years, I never felt it was ready, I always had to tell Luca ‘nooo, but not quiiite there yet’ (laughs).

I had to finish what you could call ‘a cycle’ on Raster Noton to get to a point where I could move on. For me, it’s all about phases of my life, of my development. I can’t just ‘make a track’, I need to think in advance. I started working on Hyper Opal Mantis even before the last one on Raster Noton [Cory Arcane].

I find it kind amusing that you that you seem to have this very specific modus operandi, going through specific phases, designing something more than just a collection of tracks, using sounds as tools for something larger… and at the same time you’re not too keen of acknowledging the connection between your architect background and your work as a musician…

Laughs, yeah I guess my process has something to do with that actually, even though I don’t see it myself. And even though everyone keeps asking me that.

Kangding Ray has a new album ‘Hyper Opal Mantis’ out on Stroboscopic Artefacts

Have you got a live set planned around HOM?

I always build my live set around my current album, but this time it’s more focused around certain types of events. I’m really starting next week in the States, where I do a US tour. That’s where it will be launched. After that there’s shows in Europe, and then the festival circuit.

How will your live setup be structured? Hardware?

I always play live using hardware, as long as it’s transportable and manageable. I want to be able to bring my gear into the plane cabin. I have a very precise way of packing my gear… smiles

It’s taken a lot of experience to develop that skillset.

I know you’re into modular synths, must be hard to fit in the overhead compartment.

Yeah, pretty much everything on the new album is made from a modular setup.

Yet you still manage to bring out a lot of melody and multitonal/timbral pads on that setup, which is not always the case with music from modular freaks?

I don’t know, there’s a lot of talk about the influence of modular systems, but actually it’s not much more different than all the rest of the gear you can use for doing electronic music. Basically everything is modular in electronic music. We often confuse the concept of modularity with the Eurorack format, which is a standard that enables you to have modules from different companies fit in the same frame. But at the end, it’s the same concepts of synthesis. At times, going modular can be a bit deeper, since you can define every element with much more specificity.

For me, going modular was a sort of reaction. Trying to be as specific as possible, and getting far far away from any ready-made solution that the music industry is producing every day.

Specificity and uniqueness are the advantages, but you should not get so nerdy that you become obsessed solely with the machines and technology. So obsessed that you start to feed the machine, for the machine’s sake, and not for the results. The only way to avoid that is to focus on the content and what you want to do with it. I don’t really care about the machine, actually. I have a fascination for gear, for sure, I can’t say I’m not nerdy (smiles), but only because I have a specific result in mind.

Isn’t the uniqueness aspect in modular systems dependent on the fact that there are enough companies producing modules? You’re still buying a pre-soldered oscillator…

Well, yes, but it’s not only the building blocks creating the uniqueness, it’s how you put them together! Building your tool before using it is interesting to me. It really makes it your own. It clicked for me when I did the album ‘Solens Arc’ back in 2014. I did a lot of recording on that on loads of different vintage synths. I had a residency in Vancouver, where I had access to all of these crazy vintage machines, from Yamaha CS80 to Jupiter to ARP2600… Of course you get a vintage sound out of those machines, and I really loved it, but after writing that album, I didn’t want to be stuck in this nostalgia. This fascination with the vintage gear and sound traps you in the past. I actually sold all my vintage gear after that, replaced it with new stuff, to force me to try other things and not be stuck in any vintage nostalgia.

You’ve said that sound and music is a tool to achieve emotional response. I saw an example of this when you were DJ’ing at a Kontort party for the first of May. The sun was up, people were sitting at tables, chatting. Not what you would call the most obvious conditions for a dark and dystopic Kangding Ray rinse. Yet at the end, everyone was dancing, completely spellbound by your work. Just… How?

Laughs, Well, I have this idea… There is this mystique about DJs who read the crowd and figure out how they want to play, and so on. I have another attitude towards that. I feel like if I do my really best, give everything, people will trust my passion and follow me along the journey. That’s usually what I try to do: Put all my heart and emotions into it, and try to bring people somewhere else with that. I don’t actually try to read people, because I’m afraid I’ll end up serving them the most obvious choices. I’d rather be more introspective in how I get them to share the journey with me.

Hyper Opal Mantis is out in all proper record shops right now.

Artwork and cover for Hyper Opal Mantis by Kangding Ray on Stroboscopic Artefacts.