In 2017, John Thorp interviewed Erol Alkan on the subject of his 'Reworks Volume 1' collection. Originally available as an inlay exclusive to the vinyl boxset, the interview is featured here as part of Phantasy 100, ahead of our upcoming 100th single. The 'Reworks Volume 1' boxset is currently back in stock here featuring a career-spanning collection of Alkan's reworks, including tracks from Daft Punk, Tame Impala, Justice, Hot Chip, Conan Mockasin and many more.
Hello Erol. First of all, the dry business of semantics. What does the term ‘rework’ mean in comparison to the more commonly used ‘remix’?
That’s a good question! I suppose looking back, around the time that I started remixing or reworking other people’s music, I found the association of the word 'remix' quite… what’s the word to use here without sounding damning as such? I thought the word 'remix' was too ambiguous.
Can I suggest that you, not coming initially from a dance music world, saw it in the production line style? A bit of a weightless term? Whereas you wanted to do something more specific?
Yeah, there’s definitely that. And I think that in my approach for reworking music, it was always to imagine what I would do if I had the benefit of the band in the studio with me. That goes back to my love of extended twelve-inch remixes, which were probably at thier strongest throughout the eighties, bands reproducing three minute pop songs into extended eight-minute versions. The imagination in some of those records, how they extended them to work with an incredible sense of dynamic, but always adhering to the concept of the song.
What are some good early examples of those kind of records in your world
Weirdly enough, the first two 12" records I bought are good examples. ‘The Reflex’ by Duran Duran, which had every element of the radio version, expanded upon and explored. The other twelve was ‘You Spin Me Right Round’ by Dead Or Alive, which again, was a high-energy record but which was able to create something so much more dynamic by pushing and pulling its way through an extended form. Even speaking to you about this is giving me sudden insight into what I do, maybe these records I discovered so early on have informed my approach to making music, because that’s part of what I love about music, the peaks and troughs, and the tension that it creates. I love the New York instrumental version of ‘This Charming Man’ by The Smiths, which is effectively the band playing through dubbed out effects, but designed for the dancefloor. The eighties were such a rich time for this, records that were faithful to the radio version, but far more expansive and explosive.
Tension is something you always seemed to have had a grip on. The initial intro on your Franz Ferdinand remix has an almost ‘Stewart Lee effect’, in which the sense of repetition and build-up becomes so ridiculous that it’s almost entertaining in itself, especially on an expectant dancefloor.
I actually took one round out, because I felt that was just one round too many. But I love records that challenge the crowd in some way. I thought that guitar riff was so irresistible that it deserved to be played in the biggest rooms imaginable, so that extended introduction was an invitation as such. What was great, is that during live shows Franz started playing the original version in the style of the remix. You’re going back and re-presenting something to an artist that they’ve written, which you've messed with but they can adapt themselves in their own Frankenstein live version if they wish, and that’s a wonderful thing when it happens, to feel you added something worthwhile. I’ve been on the receiving end of that, for example with the LFO or Gonzales remixes of the work I did with Alex Ridha. It’s great to know you’ve sparked someone’s imagination.
You’ve received plaudits over the years for both reworking records simply to nudge them towards a dance floor, sometimes subtly - from here, see your Kindness and Metronomy efforts - but also in totally transforming their DNA, sometimes almost beyond the point of recognition, such as with MGMT and most notably, your Scissor Sisters remix. I imagine these are very different processes?
They’re definitely different. With Metronomy and Kindness, the records really pointed the way to what needed to happen with them to make them work in a club. And even though it’s a very simple thing, unless that version exists, it’s unlikely that moment will happen. And that moment is all about you locking in a dance floor with however many people, tens, hundreds or thousands. With those records, it was about reducing them to their bare elements, and teasing them back in until they explode. And saying this, it probably seems quite simple and very obvious, but those versions didn’t exist until they were made in this form, and maybe the artist didn’t envision them in this form. Joe Mount of Metronomy texted me with a simple, “I Love You” after hearing my rework of The Bay. Originally, he was going to insist that nobody could add any elements to the remixes from that album. I didn’t know that beforehand. But it makes sense in the way of what that music is attempting to achieve in its pure form, as to why you’d want it remixed, I suppose we were both on the same wavelength as to the purpose. I really like the acapella elements to the Kindness remix, as it reveals the depth of a lot of the amazing harmonies in that track that you wouldn’t otherwise notice.
And how does it work in the other direction?
With MGMT, for example, I felt like flipping the sentiment of the song into something quite optimistic felt a bit like a certain area of pop music I like, a bit like 'Up The Junction' by Squeeze which has quite a morose lyric coupled with uplifting music. Some people would call it irony, but I’m not so sure...
As for Scissor Sisters, or Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I had to cherry pick certain elements for a dancefloor. With the former, there was this lovely keyboard motif that I just shifted in pitch. It was quite dissonant, but kind of beautifully dissonant. And then, all of a sudden, you have everything musical that you need for a track, and the rest writes itself. There’s a beautiful lyric in there: “Then why can't I keep up when you're the only thing I lose?” - and realising there may not be many vocals in my DJ set or others, but if that record is played on the night, it might not be surrounded by vocals, so it’ll be a moment. Sometimes you can create something magical with just a single line.
I know you say that when you work with an artist, you want to bring out the best version of themselves. So, when you’re remixing, are you trying to reimagine them through your eyes and ears? A sort of alternate ‘Erol universe’ version of themselves?
I do approach it as a producer of bands, rather than whatever worked in my last DJ set. In a sense, I think what I tried to do with some of them, or what I’d love to achieve, is to create something timeless. With one foot in the artist’s vision, but another on the dancefloor.
I know that the first remix you ever did was rejected. Who was that for?
My first ever remix was for Playgroup, a track called ‘Front And Back’. It was rejected, and probably rightly so. I believe rejection isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It only galvanises you to try harder next time.
Some of these tracks are over a decade old now. Would you say the remixing process is something you’ve grown more confident with over time? And how do you keep it interesting for yourself?
Whether or not one actually becomes better or worse in what they do is one question, but for me it’s all about decision making, and what you choose to do, rather than if you’re a better remixer than ten years ago, or vice versa. Back then, there was a lot of things that I finished but didn’t hand in, and subsequently didn’t get paid for, because as far as I was concerned, they weren’t good enough. I have a similar ethos now, unless I feel like I’ve added anything substantial or worthwhile, it’s difficult to view as a success.
So in what sort of order are we listening to the remixes here across the two discs?
I’ve based it on how I view links between them. The way the Tame Impala rework starts is one of my favourite introductions, which is a lot to do with the original. I’ve done a couple of mixes for Tame Impala, and I think Kevin Parker’s way of making music is very interesting to be a spectator to when you’re combing through the parts, looking for elements to latch onto and build around. I worked really hard on that remix; I made six versions before settling on this one, so the presence of that track is a big deal to me. I handed one in, had it accepted, then I revoked it and made two or three more versions until I got this one. It was a distillation on how hard I sometimes think you need to work and not give up on something. And I think sonically, it’s a great sounding mix, but again, a lot of the credit to the original on that as well. Getting to the point that I feel confident to put this front and centre is important to me. I could have gone with the first version, and that might not be on this compilation.
I remember once telling me that in the case of your remix of Connan Mockasin’s ‘Forever Dolphin Love’, the whole arrangement just came to you in a dream? How often does this happen? Is there any particular cheese you’d recommend for this kind of inspiration?
After exploring where a track could go, I don’t do my work at a computer. I go away, I take it to bed, and I try to dream it until I get to sleep, and hope the next day I’ll remember it. If you can pinpoint or a melody or a rhythm or just a general emotion, then it’s just a matter of getting into the studio and making it. If I’ve got something in my head, I never struggle making it, and that definitely happened with ‘Forever Dolphin Love’, as I knew which instrument to go to. I knew the keyboard part, I knew how many layers it needed, the reverb to use and the exact tone of the piece.
I feel the Connan rework is seen as a bonafide classic and the perfect example of you taking a very offbeat artist onto a dancefloor quite comfortably. Whereas your remix of Daft Punk’s ‘The Brainwasher’, something from the biggest electronic band in the world, has remained a bit of a curioso, never really translating in the same way.
I don’t know if there was ever a time that I’ve felt… I’m not sure intimidated is the right word. But it was 2005, and I wanted to do something different from what was expected. And Daft Punk are such an institution, that I wanted to take it into a new space. And that remix is very much inspired by my love of rave, and especially acts such as Meat Beat Manifesto and Renegade Soundwave. I never actually had the parts, so I literally made it from a CD while the band’s studio was closed up. So that’s one where I had quite a magnificent limitation, and a situation in which I was forced to be quite creative. But ‘The Brainwasher’ was a big mix for me, I really like it, but I appreciate that it probably has a very different colour alongside a lot of the remixes on this CD. But it was a real challenge, and I made two versions, one of which was much more jacking. I actually played it out, and it would have made more sense to release that one, but I went back to this more angry version that’s here. It was the polar opposite with Waters of Nazareth, as that was a very wild electronic record, and my purpose with that was to contribute something that anybody could play. To take elements of something I thought was an instant classic merely by introducing elements one by one, reaching a peak and then bringing it back down again. The fact it starts off with simple drums was an invitation, I wanted every amateur Dj to reach for that track as it was rewarding to mix into any other record. The Justice record was an entry point for a lot of people and that mix was another open door.
We touched on this slightly earlier, but who do you feel the greater responsibility towards when working on these remixes; yourself as an artist, or the artist themselves?
I feel the greatest responsibility is to the song. As if that’s right, then we all benefit.
Is there any psychological tangle in remixing yourself? It’s a task you undertake on your ‘White Crow’ rework of Black Crow by The Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve.
Remixing yourself is a real challenge, because you really do need to look at it from a different angle. But when I was making Black Crow, I could always hear White Crow as well, sitting on my other shoulder, so that came round quite easily. But whenever I make my own music from scratch, or I’m involved in anyone else’s music, I can always hear alternate versions. So it’s just an extension of that to a degree. I always hope that whatever I make is always strong enough in its purest form that it can work in different ways.