"They were so much better when they first started," is the cry of dyed-in-the-wool hipsters the world over. But in the case of Groove Armada, the electronic duo seem to have started good and got better, growing up to rock the terrace of Space Ibiza as easily as any festival stage, reaching the Top 10 of the UK charts, starting their own annual Lovebox event to highlight talent old and new, and diving back into the underground after releasing eight albums by signing to Hypercolour.
Out 29th April on R&S off-shoot Apollo Records, 'Times & Places' gives a personal, inside glimpse on this journey from the perspective of Andy Cato. Gathering tracks he made in friend's flats, hotel rooms, rehearsal spaces and studios around the world from as far back as 1993, it's an aural history of the downtime between the peaks, the post-euphoria glow and the next day contemplation.
More than that though, it's a cracking good listen. We sat him down to pry a little more...
The album's sleeve notes show you've experienced firsthand some of dance music's biggest touch points, from early Ibiza and Castlemorton to today's adventures in fresh far-flung places. If you had to pick three precise moments that shaped who and where you are now, what would they be? And approximately how many sunglasses, record bags and passports have you lost along the way?
“Sticking to the musical moments, there are hundreds, but three that have to be there.
“Castlemorton. The moment when house music became more than just a groove. As the song goes, it was a feeling. There was no turning back from there.
“Space Terrace, Ibiza. I've walked onto a few famous stages over the years, but stepping up to the booth in Space was the moment I became part of an island that has changed my life.
“Central Park, Sydney. Probably the defining GA live gig. From the stage it looked like the whole town had turned out to see us. On stage, it was the best group of mates you could ever have. Put those two together, and life doesn't get much better.
“Jury's out on the shades. Passports — only loss so far is one stolen along with a change of clothes and wallet. Record boxes — there were a few that didn't come off the luggage belt. But the worst one, looking back, is the one that got run over by the PA lorry on the way out of a party somewhere out West. In that box was just about every classic house tune from 89-93. Worst thing was that I was driving...”
Today, making music on the road is standard, with many producers having their whole set-up contained on their laptop. We imagine it was a bit more kit intensive when you started the first of these tracks in 1993. Talk us through your '90s/'00s mobile studio essentials.
“It was a combination of this, a DX27 and an Akai 900. When I was doing PA-type gigs, the kit was with me, so the mobile studio was in full flow. But also a lot of these recordings were done in other people's places. From Mark's flat to Abbey Road; after after-parties, or pre recording sessions. A few early ones were played into a dictaphone and copied later. The last ones are in the laptop era, which makes things quicker, but less vibey.”
As an aural diary, what impressions, feelings or emotions did you go through reacquainting yourself with your younger self as you listened back to pieces, some of which you'd written 20 years ago? Could you instantly recall the place and time they were written or was it a more gradual recalling?
“Instantly. Sounds and smells take you back to places where photos can't reach. Going through the sonic archives was quite often like getting punched in the guts. Too many good memories to deal with. And once you open up the closet, it sent me into a spiral of trying to find an endless chain of things I suddenly started remembering. Sadly most of which were lost, broken or stored on the kind of floppy drives now alongside the dinosaur bones in the museum.”
The album as a whole has an incredible coherence and flow. It's hard to believe it's a patchwork of pieces assembled from over two decades. How did you go about stitching it together so smoothly?
“That was the tough bit. Over the years I've had a fair bit of experience at stitching comps together. There's definitely an art to it. The key is first to get the tunes into an order which makes sense in terms of style, tempo and mood. Then unleash the old synths, get looping and dial up the fx to make the keys and tempos blend. As with many things, the secret is time...”
One of the tracks, 'Rainfalls', is virtually the same as Mike Monday's 'When Rain Falls'. What's going on there, then? Was he in Toulouse with you when you wrote it?
“It's a version of the same track. Me and Mike were in a band called Beat Foundation back in the day. We were living in a flat in Clapham with another mate Dan, touring the UK in an ambulance. It was a pretty unique live act we had at the time. A stage full of 909s and 303s, plus one of the early Macs, with a theatre-sized fan blowing to keep it rolling in rave conditions. We actually got signed to Virgin just before 'At The River' turned up, GA took off and I had to follow that path. Anyway, years later he came over having just done some tunes with a mate of his — tunes that I'd been playing at Mambo [Ibiza] during the sunset shift. Sat in the studio as the rain did actually fall, we took the parts and did a rework.”
All the places inspiring the tracks — Tokyo, St. Petersburg, Florence etc — are already very evocative, but can you tell us a story about visiting any of the following cities: Slough, Dundee, Aberystwyth?
“Slough. Used to go there a lot in the early days when I was working on remixes for the DMC Mix Compilations. DMC was on an industrial estate in Slough, which was as lovely as it sounds. The Brothers in Rhythm studio was in the basement, and I did a couple of mixdowns in there. My last visit came the morning after a Beat Foundation gig. We'd been up all night and I couldn't face unloading the van, so I drove down with all the gear, which was our entire studio, in the back. You can see where this is heading. When I came out of DMC, the van was gone and the Beat Foundation career was gone with it. A difficult moment.”
Signing to Hypercolour, you've gone back to the underground despite also presumably being able to play the biggest shows you've ever done. Now you've closed the circle into an infinite feedback loop, are Groove Armada going to slowly dissolve into the fabric of time and space as if they never existed? If not, are there plans for the next album?
“We've been in more than our fair share of infinite feedback loops over the last 15 years. Quite amazing that we've always managed to find the exit. I can guarantee slowly dissolving at some point, though hopefully not for at least 30 or so years. I don't think we'll do another album. 'Black Light' was the peak of the studio and touring live band. That's why we left it there. We may well put together a mix of our own recent tunes — there are 22 house tracks from the last couple of years alone. Being the lovely people we are, I suspect we'll put it out there for free.”
You've now made the perfect inflight audio for a whole generation of new artists, many of whom are probably as inspired by the music reverberations of the '90s as you were. What young talent are helping to keep you on your toes still? And what's forthcoming on the more underground front release-wise?
“I try to keep off my toes, a little more reclined. But the fact is still, as it always has been, that when in the studio there's a sense of: 'Shit, all these new tunes sound fat and we'd better get it sorted'. The basic level of sonic production around now is impressive. It takes a lot to make a tune which is better than average. That said, we've had a couple of good moments in the studio recently. Two wicked GA versions of the '80s classic by Rockers Revenge, 'Walking on Sunshine', and a 300-only secret vinyl run of a couple of tunes that will have to remain nameless. Then there's a new EP for Hypercolour and one for the Om boys in the US. We're hoping to get a new vocal recorded from Candi Staton tonight, too. Meanwhile, enjoy your inflight entertainment.”