Left to right: Phil Ventre, Simon Lynch, Gavin Pykerman © London Modular Alliance
London Modular Alliance; comprised of Phil Ventre (Pip Williams), Gavin Pykerman (Koova), and Simon Lynch (Yes Effect), have been a bit of a phenomenon since their debut back in 2016, going on to quickly become one of the most dedicated groups in the new school Electro scene, not to mention one of the strongest and most vocal supporters in the rising world of modular synthesizers.
Already with a plethora of releases on many of the best labels out there such as Applied Rhythmic Technology, Brokntoys, and Hypercolour to name a few, London Modular Alliance have returned once again to ART to release their very first full length album titled "Portable Sanctuary".
Here we get a chance to speak with Phil Ventre; one of the main founders of the group, about all things modular, including how the group and storefront came about, what modules tickle their fancy these days, and of course this incredible new record of theirs. Let's get on with it then!
Electric Kingdom: What was the catalyst for you guys forming the group? How did you guys all first meet?
Phil Ventre: I met Gavin (Koova) through Soundcloud many years ago. We were both making Electro and it was quite an undervalued genre at the time, so anybody who was into it kind of gravitated towards each other.
He showed me some of his modular setup, and being a massive gear nerd, that was it for me, no looking back! Simon was living in Hackney Wick at the time. He posted on some modular forums about doing jams at his place, so me and Gav headed over. After a few sessions there was all sorts of talk about doing live gigs, opening a shop and stuff. Mostly all bollocks really, we never actually thought it would happen, but here we are.
Amazing the way things can start to change right before our eyes like that, isn't it? Sometimes we are actively participating in some of the biggest changes of our lives and don't even realize it!
So for those who may not know, you guys aren't just a music project and live act, but as you mentioned, also a thriving store that deals with modular synthesizers. You guys even do workshops and repairs.
Talk a little bit about what that is like. Is it particularly difficult to run a synthesizer shop? And for the curious, what came first, the shop or the group?
We do run a shop. The lines are pretty blurry as to whether this or LMA came first, but probably the store. It was arguably the go to place for so many producers. We’ve made loads of good friends, and generally had a wicked time running it - often under difficult circumstances, with little or no cashflow - but it does seem this has run its course now.
Along with a ton of other small businesses, Covid fucked us in immeasurable ways. Our sales were all in store, so the lockdowns really did cripple us. Landlords now want stable business with long leases, so actively priced us out the area.
Doing something for the love of it without any business acumen really did show up some serious naivety in our lack of planning, but the closure of the physical store has enabled us to rethink things and look for other opportunities.
Altar of the Modular Gods © London Modular Alliance
That really is a shame, I am sorry to hear that about the shop. All around the world so many businesses are suffering terribly. But like you said, it's also giving everyone an opportunity to rethink how they are doing things.
Alright, let's talk modulars for a bit here. As you know of course, modular synthesizers have been growing in popularity almost in tandem with the resurgence of vinyl over the last several years, which is interesting because it's during that time that there has also been a particular rise in interest in Electro music, and even in general with analog hardware and more classic approaches to making electronic music. A time many of us have waited for for years I would say!
From your perspective, how have you seen this all unfold? I am sure you have noticed an interest in modulars and synthesizers in general, but has it all led to an interest in more authentic electronic music as well you think?
I’m not surprised they’ve grown in popularity. Most music producers are always looking for inspiration, and being able to craft a set up to your exact need is very attractive and way more interesting in so far as the results that can be achieved compared to standard synths.
Over the past few years manufacturers have massively upped their game, releasing outstanding products. This in turn led competitors to improve, so the bar has been raised very high indeed. This, of course, is great and one of the main reasons things have really taken off.
I wouldn’t say modular was influencing more authentic electronic music, but they do seem to just work really well with sequences and rhythmic lines which are a staple of electronic music I guess. Having the freedom to patch cables with unexpected results has definitely led to more unusual approaches to creating sound, and with this you can almost feel the emotion or passion coming through into the track. People don’t often think of modular synths as anything other than a quite sterile machine, but you can really give them a life of their own which can absolutely come across into the music.
Right on. What about Electro in general? Does it really feel this time around like the music is getting the attention and respect it deserves?
Well, for me, Electro has always been there with a strong and completely devoted following. It fully had that respect from day one, but being underground it wasn’t on most people’s radar. The attention it’s getting now is good in some ways, for example, turning people on to it for the first time, but it doesn’t always equate to respect because things get watered down.
It can become too mainstream and then people can become tired of the sound or even begin to resent it, and it’s worse off than it started. This may be a cynical way of thinking, but it is a delicate balance. Personally, and perhaps selfishly, I don’t like to see it in the limelight too much.
It's true though however, because Electro has survived as long as it has as a very complex and authentic sound, because of the strong underground ethos in the scene which rejects any and all commerciality. I feel the same as you, in fact, I began to see and even resent the typical rinsing of certain artists over and over again already throughout this rise in interest in the music, completely turning a blind eye on the majority of the scene. At a time of course when the scene is blossoming as much as you could ever hope for. Shame it has to be that way so often!
Anyway, moving on, let's talk more gear for a bit. What's your rig consist of these days? What are some of you guys' favorite modules, and who are some of your favorite manufacturers at the moment? What is the most innovative module you have seen so far?
I try to split my gear into "studio" and "live". The studio gear consists of lots of old drum machines, and a good few synths all routed via a patch bay and 24 channel analog mixer, into an Apollo interface hooked up to Logic. This stays put and rarely moves about, which I am most grateful for!
The live side of things needs to be quite portable and consequently has some compromises. There’s no computer, so the Elektron Octatrack will help out with any samples and processing modular audio with effects. I was using this a lot to sequence via MIDI too, but now have the Five12 Vector sequencer.
With the expander I can control any MIDI and modular parts I need. Simon was using this for a good year before I took the plunge, and constantly kept on at me to get one. It just seemed so big, and I had other sequencers, but it really has opened up so much for me. I would say this is my current favourite module, but I’m slightly biased because I love sequencers! Last time I counted I had six...
It’s tough to name a favourite manufacturer as there are a number of good ones, but it's probably MakeNoise. Their whole West Coast vibe was so different and experimental to my ears when I first got into modular. The way they carved out their niche has been great to see.
London Modular Alliance live @ V&A Museum © LMA/Giacomo Tonoli Photography
MakeNoise are doing great things for sure! Very innovative company. They are interesting to me as far as their whole West Coast approach, because they are actually located in Asheville, North Carolina (East Coast), not far from the Moog factory. I found that out not long ago actually.
So let's go back to something you kind of touched on for a minute. As you know, there are many out there that tend to feel like modulars are mainly for experimenting, and at best perhaps for droning sounds that can be great for detail, but perhaps not much more.
Listening to you guys' music it is very clear, as you mentioned before, that you guys have pushed the boundaries of the machines properly in such a way, that it shows modulars can clearly be used to compose music almost exclusively, and with great results.
How do you feel about that? Can full songs be composed with a modular system, and if so, what are some of the best modules to accomplish a great Electro track with?
Modulars do have this stigma, if that’s the right word, for being drone machines. And while I love a good drone, they obviously can offer much more. It really depends on what modules you have in the setup. While they excel at sequences and experimental textures, they can quite easily produce "songs" with chords, melodies and so on. However to achieve this requires substantial investment. It’s expensive buying multiple VCOs, filters, VCAs, envelopes, but you’ve also got to invest a good chunk of your time into planning everything meticulously. You have to be a patient person and, frankly, it can be exhausting. I sometimes look at Richard Devine's patches and it brings me out in a cold sweat!
When I bought my first modules it was a serious outlay, so I really felt like I had to shoe in as much modular into my production as possible to somehow justify getting it. Honestly, it was some of the worst shit I think I’ve ever made. Forcing anything like this is a terrible way to make music, truly.
To make full tracks with just modular gear is a big undertaking, and kudos for anybody who does this but, in my experience, multiple takes is the best way to go. This way you can take the best bits and really push the most out of them rather than relying on one good, long take. Combining these smaller parts with other synths in our studio and getting them to work together always brings the best results.
So with that in mind, walk us through a day's process in getting a new song going. What's that like for you guys in studio? What comes first, a beat, a sound or a melody? Does each member have their own particular role?
Usually I choose a couple of synths to use, and then start mucking about making patches with no real end result in mind, just tinkering until something sounds nice. Once they’re saved, I’d maybe get the 808 running to get some simple groove, and fire up the modular to lay over some elements. I find that there’s a progression, and things either naturally fall into place or not. If what I’m hearing is working I’ll keep adding, if not, it’s best to bin it and start again, rather than trying too hard to make it work. We don’t have a particular role as such, it’s all very loose!
People don’t often think of modular synths as anything other than a quite sterile machine, but you can really give them a life of their own which can absolutely come across into the music...
For people looking to get started with modulars, what would you recommend? What are some pro tips you could share with our readers in terms of being able to get set up and making sounds in a reasonable amount of time? What are some great fully assembled systems people could research?
The main advice we could offer would be start slowly. Have your plan laid out and know, as best you can, which direction you want to take your system. With the sheer number of modules on offer, it is daunting, but grabbing just a case and a couple of modules, and playing with them for a week or 2, will give you a much clearer picture of where you want to go next.
Expectations can be high, but realistically, it may be some time before you get everything you want out of it as it’s a continual work in progress. A popular route is build an FX processing case. These don’t require as much to get real world results from. If you have existing synths, or even audio from your DAW, you can run it through the modular and make excellent and unusual sound design pretty much from the get go.
While you can buy fully assembled systems like ALM’s Coupe or MakeNoise Black & Gold, it would probably be wise to build your own, so it is fully tailored to you and what you want to achieve.
A sonic palette of endless possibilities © London Modular Alliance
Great advice! And I'd second that for sure. The whole beauty of modulars is the deep customization you can get out of them, no question.
Let's talk now about the past two years since the pandemic began. You touched on this a bit, but can you expand on how affected you guys have been with the store, and performing as well? What's the situation currently like in your country as new lockdowns seem to be getting imposed across the globe?
So, yeah, the pandemic has truly been a disaster all round for us. Not only did the store have to close and see sales drop through the floor, all our gigs ground to a halt as well. It was a double blow really. We used the time out to set up our Longhaul label and start rolling out some releases. Probably not the most sensible thing to do, but sales have been decent enough to continue doing it, so we have some nice bits lined up for the end of this year and next.
The UK government have never really taken the arts and entertainment industry here seriously. They seem like they couldn't really care less if our scene falls apart. And it is already unravelling in a pretty big way. I can foresee more lockdowns ahead if things ramp up this winter. Everybody is already edgy wondering what the future holds. I think we need to seriously address how the pandemic is being handled, and try to get back to some sense of the old normal. But that’s a conversation for another day!
For sure, but I do agree as the same thing is happening here in the US and around the world. Leaders are rapidly power grabbing, but somehow there is a sense with everyone that there is more to the story, and that our wellbeing is not actually what is most important to them. But yes, for another day! :)
Back to the music now...this one is big! You have a new album out on Applied Rhythmic Technology, this one your very first. How does that feel? It took a while for you guys to do a whole album. How come? Was it by choice, or circumstantial?
Yes, this is the first album. You're right, it has taken a long time to get it together. Too long! Mostly this was down to labels asking us for tracks for singles and EP's, and us running out of material for a full LP! When we were actively doing proper gigs in 2020, and before, we found our studio time was limited as a large part of it was taken up prepping equipment and rehearsing. The lockdowns did at least give us some time to get more tracks finished. Kirk at ART asked us ages ago for an album and has been very supportive and patient throughout. He let us do the sleeve and label designs too which I was really happy about.
What else do you have in store for the future as far as releases go? Any exciting new plans you'd like to mention in regards to the store?
Well, as we said above, the store will be closing this year. It’ll be a sad day seeing something we put so much of our energy into come to an end, but ultimately we’ll all hold amazing memories of our time there in Hackney Wick. The future will give us time to concentrate our efforts on scoring for films, releasing more artists through Longhaul, and continue flying the modular Electro flag!
Huge thanks Phil, best of luck with you guys' projects going forward!