Smoking Gun

5 July 2012 | 8:00 am | Cyclone Wehner

Little Alex won a scholarship to the Durham Cathedral Choir School in North East England (its former pupils include Rowan “Mr Bean” Atkinson and Tony Blair!).

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Scottish DJ/producer Alex Smoke (aka Alexander Menzies) could be the techno braveheart. While DJing at Melbourne club institution Revolver in 2010, he suddenly felt crook. Menzies was rushed to the Alfred Hospital, where it was discovered that his lung had collapsed, necessitating keyhole surgery. “Basically, I shouldn't have really done that tour of Australia,” Menzies now says wryly. “I was already ill.” The muso, forced to cancel his remaining dates, was well looked after, the Alfred “amazing”. “I've got just nothing but good memories of that tour. I loved it. Even the week in hospital was nice. I was quite happy.” Menzies, who first toured in 2007, returned last winter – and he's back this July. Indeed, he's actually contemplating a move to Oz (Menzies has family here). Until recently, Menzies was living in London, but he's staying temporarily in his native Glasgow – and feeling restless. “I'm planning what to do next. Maybe I'll go back to London, but maybe I'll move somewhere else. I'm not sure. I was even thinking about Melbourne. So I'll wait and see.” There will be no visa issues: Menzies, whose father is Kiwi, has a New Zealand passport. 

Menzies' Mum, a music teacher (and professional violinist), encouraged his musicality from the outset. Little Alex won a scholarship to the Durham Cathedral Choir School in North East England (its former pupils include Rowan “Mr Bean” Atkinson and Tony Blair!). Apart from fulfilling his duties as chorister in the Norman cathedral, he learnt cello, piano and drums. Later, Menzies decided to become a marine biologist. But, before long, music again took precedence as the fan of classic techno, hip hop and clubbing put his student loan towards studio gear – and quit uni. Airing singles in the early 2000s, Menzies created a deep, dubby techno, veering from minimal to maximal, and alternating between the hedonistically groovy and melancholic. In 2005 the Chica Wappa producer delivered his full-length debut, Incommunicado, on Slam's Soma Recordings, following the next year with Paradolia. Menzies, who has likewise released EPs on Berlin's Vakant, then teamed with ex-Soma staffer Jim Hutchison to launch Hum+Haw – and it was through H+H that he disseminated his third LP, the murkier Lux, two years ago. 

Of late the versatile Menzies has been involved in orchestral projects, composing for Scottish Ensemble. Many younger classical musicians enjoy EDM – and they're seeking to change “the whole rarefied atmosphere” of their industry by reaching out. “They're excited to work with people like me because it's a totally new world for them and they like to experiment.” Menzies has even remixed (the admittedly elitist) minimal pioneer Steve Reich's Proverb. His endgame is to score movies. “I've always had a passion for film. Ever since I really first started Incommunicado, I always had that in my mind as being somewhere I'd like to end up. I'm still very much on that road. I'm just constantly working at it.” Last year Menzies presented a score integrating classical and electronic elements for German expressionist F W Murnau's silent film Faust, which premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival, and performed his own ambient music at Glasgow's Concert Halls alongside Craig Armstrong – a Massive Attack associate who often collaborates with Baz Luhrmann and scored Ray

Nevertheless, on another front, Menzies is rationalising. H+H is “kaputt”, he affirms. “It's just too much work, too much money lost.” Menzies freely acknowledges that he had “no interest” in having a label, regarding it as Hutchison's baby. “All I want to do is make music.” 

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Menzies expects 2012 to be big. In September he'll unveil the song-orientated side-project Wraetlic on Brit Damon Kirkham's Convex Industries. Menzies hasn't secured guest vocalists: the old choirboy, his adult voice heard on 2005's Don't See The Point, sings himself on the introspective yet experimental enterprise. “I'm not a big collaborator. I prefer just to do things myself, so it's me singing – and singing live as well. It's a bit scary, to be honest. I'm sort of at a stage where singing's very personal, and I still get quite nervous doing it, but it's the only way I could see to do it. It's a personal project and so I want to sing on it. It's okay – you need to just take things on, do them, and then overcome your fears...” Wraetlic isn't Menzies' only new work. He's also shopping around another Alex Smoke LP. “It's pretty much ready to go,” Menzies reveals. “I've just been through a very creative spell, so it's good – I've been busy.”

Menzies had a previous vocal project. He devised the hip hop Fool, hooking up with Los Angeles MC Non (Shadow Huntaz). Alas, their album Mad Man's Drum never appeared. “I loved the principle of it, the idea, but I just wasn't happy with the finished result,” Menzies confesses. “I think it's unlikely I'll ever revisit it. I tend to just move on. When something's past, it's past.” Besides, the modest Menzies reckons that Flying Lotus and his compatriot Hudson Mohawke have forged an electronic hip hop “way ahead” of his. That said, he still loves hip hop – with some reservations. “I have to say I'm disappointed with so much of where the culture has gone – and even people who I really love like.” People like hot Miami rapper SpaceGhostPurrp. “I can't get away from the bullshit misogynist blood patter, which is just really boring. I would like to hear some hip hop which is political and good but at the same time cutting-edge – and there's a lack of that.” Menzies is more buoyant about (underground) dubstep – he buys more of that these days than house or techno. (The DJ snuck a Burial track onto 2006's mix-CD Sci Fi Hi Fi, Volume 3.) “I think more and more of the stuff which is exciting me is not really fitting any genre,” Menzies states, citing Actress and Zomby. “These things aren't fitting in any genre whatsoever, they're just 'electronic music'. That's a big positive. All that stuff has been a massive influence… just all genreless music – music for music's sake – [with] lots of different influences, but [that's] not trying too hard to sound like anything else.” 

This visit Menzies will again stage a live laptop set. But, though he's already performed Wraetlic material at his inaugural show at MUTEK in Montreal last month, Menzies is noncommittal about doing so Down Under. “I'm not sure,” he ponders. “It's too early to get a tour in Australia doing the Wraetlic thing. Maybe I'll do some, but not the full thing – because it's like a full audio-visual tour. Maybe I'll touch little bits of it, just to give people a taste, but it won't be the proper thing... I'll see how responsive people are. But it's pretty miserable – it's not as clubby as the Alex Smoke stuff!”

Time will tell whether or not Menzies settles in Australia for even a year or two, as he says. “Deadly serious” about his scheme, he has considered the disadvantages (“You just wouldn't be able to tour Europe every weekend”). However, if Menzies proceeds, this lover of “the great outdoors” may yet mastermind his most panoramic electronica in our midst. “Ideally, I would be like Boards Of Canada – have a lovely studio with an amazing view, live in the country, miles away from anyone... that's heaven for me.”