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Emperor Machine: How I Play Live

The synth sorcerer breaks down his live setup

Andrew Meecham is one of the UK's most cherished and respected producers. As part of Bizarre Inc, he crafted ’90s club classics alongside Dean Meredith before re-emerging in the early Noughties as Chicken Lips, whose stripped-back, dubbed-out disco jams reflected a re-emergence of cosmic sounds from bands like Faze Action and Crazy P. As Emperor Machine, his solo project started in 2003, he's remixed everyone from The Knife and The Rapture to Erol Alkan, Andrew Weatherall and Daft Punk. In 2019, he's back on Skint Records with a new single 'Two Voice', with more to come on the legendary label. 

His live show is a laptop-free affair, preferring dual MPCs to a glowing Apple logo, with an array of synths and samplers that are changing all the time. We spoke to Andrew to find out his approach to playing live, what kit makes up his setup and where he'd like to take his show next. 

What made you want to play live beyond just DJing?
"Good question and one that I ask myself before every gig. If I had a therapist I am sure they would be able to explain why I have a compulsive need to make my life as difficult as possible. I love DJing but it feels more of a social and enjoyable thing to do. When I play live I feel like I am properly delivering, sweating and I get a real sense of satisfaction from [it]."

What were the biggest challenges in putting your live show together?
"Choosing the right equipment and then being able to carry the right equipment around airports! I tend to build the live show around the equipment and then rebuild the equipment around the live show. I really need to get some screens up behind me so people can see how live everything is. The live set-up has already gone through three incarnations and equipment regenerations. I’ve had to retire some of the more vintage pieces for international bookings as they simply can’t take much more punishment. That means that I need authentic substitutions that still enable me to have manual control – I like to press keys and twist knobs! – but sound true to what I want to create. It has been really tough and has given me a lot of sleepless nights and I have got through a lot of bespoke flight cases trying to get this right."

"When I play live I feel like I am properly delivering, sweating and I get a real sense of satisfaction"

What does your setup consist of? 
"Previously; Akai MPC60, Akai MPC3000, Roland ProMars, Roland SH-101, Moog Prodigy, Moog Little Phatty, Soundcraft 12-channel mixer. Currently; two Akai MPC2500s, two Korg Monologues, Elektron Monomachine and a Mackie 12-channel mixer. I’m in the process of changing the set-up again because I’m constantly overweight at airports with the two MPC2500s and it’s costing me €50 each way! Currently programming a Roland TR-8S and MPC Live to replace the heavy MPCs – I think I’ll still use the Monologue though, might even try out the Arturia MicroFreak because it's so slim!"

What would you change about the setup if you could?
"I’m not averse to change – I’m always evolving, it keeps it fresh even if it makes my life difficult and puts an enormous amount of pressure on myself. I would like to be free of all size, weight, insurance restrictions - I would like to be able to zap my equipment from one place to another risk-free. Then my vintage gear could come out to play - my set-up would be immense and I think that I would be in tech heaven bouncing from piece-to-piece around the stage. My serious answer is genuinely I would like to remove the limitations on what I can bring out with me."

Emperor Machine

What do you think is behind the current rise in live electronic music, in both more artists playing live and more tech companies creating kit specifically for live?
"I think it’s about putting on a show. It is really satisfying for the DJ in me to be able to read the crowd and change my set to adapt to the mood of the floor, and it really satisfies the musician in me to enable me to be creative and of course, a live show is all about the music of the artist that's playing. Tech companies have simply cottoned on, maybe they research airport baggage restrictions."

What are the creative limitations of playing live? Would you recommend alternating between DJing and live to keep things fresh?
"For me - no - not in the way that I have things set up. I DJ at my own monthly residency, Music Not Safari, because I love DJing so I don’t feel like I need to alternate when I am playing live because I can change my show as I want, according to the vibe of the crowd. It’s also a bit easier as I’m by myself for all the recent live shows although for the earlier Emperor Machine live band set-up with the wonderful Miss Bee on vocals and the awesome [guitarist] Mr Atherton, I would still throw curveballs at them. I'm sure they loved me for it!

"For other people perhaps - I’m not sure. A more traditional band set-up wouldn’t all of a sudden feel the need to drop some records and so I’m not sure why a good live electronic artist would need to do that either. Is that an accurate comparison? I’m not sure. Equally, there are such strong DJs out there who can create a really good night by running some equipment alongside their sets like the Pioneer DJ Toraiz SP-16. I’ve not tried it but it sounds like fun. Then there are the DJs who don’t need to do anything other than what they are doing to keep things fresh. My 2020 live set up will feature an extended live set with machines and visuals I’m very excited about it – watch this space!"

Does a dancefloor feel or appreciate the effort that goes into a ‘live’ set in your opinion?
"Appreciate - no. Unless you are stood behind me or next to me, you won’t really see what I am doing and even then it’s difficult to appreciate the amount of time I have previously spent programming each MPC. The only people who know is me, the manager, my wife and the dog. Feel - if I am doing the task that I have set for myself correctly, I very much hope so yes."

Is there a challenge in getting the compressed, studio-style sound people are used to on records when the sounds are coming from real instruments? Do you run a master channel chain to combat this?
"If I thought it was important to get a produced sound then yes that would be a challenge. The only pre-production I do is mix the show on the studio monitors and get it as balanced as I can. Also, I think the Mackie 1202 mixer sounds great live – I think a good mixer makes all the difference. I’m known for a vintage analogue sound and so I don’t think people necessarily expect that clean polished digital sound from me, even though the analogue equipment and other equipment that I use is no longer vintage.

"I think if you capture the feel of the room, as long as you have a half-decent sound system, the floor can be very forgiving and in fact expect a more real sound if they realise you are playing live. I’ve had people trying desperately to have a chat with me when I am playing because they think that I am DJing! And that live meant a PA sort of 'live', which is definitely not going to happen with The Emperor Machine. Yes - I really do need to get those screens and visuals don’t I. I think of all of my equipment as real instruments and so it's great to hear you say this. Others don’t, most probably don’t even care - and that’s all fine as long as they get and feel and appreciate the bespoke nature of the Emperor Machine’s sounds that are actually coming out."

"Spend a lot of time talking to other artists about what they use. It's an expensive set-up to get wrong"

What would be your advice for a producer wanting to take their music live?
"Spend a lot of time trying out equipment and talking to other artists about what they use and why. It's an expensive set-up to get wrong. I know. There is a healthy second-hand market out there for a reason."

As the lines blur between what ‘live’ is – running a drum machine alongside a DJ set, or a full-blown laptop-less hardware setup – what do you think is next for performance in the club?
"I honestly don’t know what could or should come next.  I’m hardware laptop free set up but have nothing against any set up that works for anyone else.   As long as it’s creative and the crowd are getting what they want then who am I to say what is right or wrong. What I’m planning to do next is to extend the live show and increase the visual element using screens and visuals. My team are currently working out the logistics for The Emperor Machine new improved one-man operation."

Two Voice is out now on Skint Records. Photo credit: Dave Croft Photography

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