Dark clubs with suggestive bodies: A Q&A with House of Traps

Lindsay Todd, who assumes the name House of Traps in the booth and for his NTS radio show “Into the Outer”, is also the man behind a collection of the most iconic best to exist in recent times. Firecracker recordings and its subsidiaries Unthank and Shevchenko, is a label that has established itself with a very unique identity from its Edinburgh headquarters, where music and visual art conspire to create some of the most fulfilling and complete recorded musical experiences across three labels.

Firecracker and Todd brings the music on record to life through engaging visual presentations, and limited special packages that adds a dimension to the diverse musical pieces that quite rightly stand on their own as unique expressions from diverse corners of electronic music subcultures.

Firecracker recordings and its subsidiaries revolve around a core group of artists like Lord of The Isles, Vakula and Linkwood, artist who all bring their own stylistic traits to genres from Ambient to Deep House and Techno. Artistic relationships have been forged at Firecracker Recordings where a definite attitude prevails if not a sound. It’s an attitude that steps beyond the familiar as pre-conceptions fall to the wayside, and Vakula’s Techno experiments on Shevchenko to Rings around Saturn’s most recent off-kilter interpretation of Deep House on Unthank finds a common ground exactly for their aberrant nature.

Everything is validated, and the label is able to move in wide births around gentrified notions of the dance floor, with Todd’s visual work allowing these diverse pieces to coexist under one banner. And although Todd is an adept hand at music himself, with his Linkwood Family project co-producing some of the first releases on his label with Linkwood, he seems to prefer the role of facilitator, as a label boss and DJ. For the most part it seems his time is taken up by Firecracker and to find out a bit more about the label, and how it might infiltrate his set this Wednesday for Untzdag, we shot over some questions to the Scotsman.  

Firecracker (and its imprints) have been around since 2004, What has been the ambitions for the label/s since its inception?

I never had any major ‘ambitions’ as such other than exploring possibilities in music and art. It seems that other people also dig this so I’m eternally grateful for the opportunities provided from the support of fans and artists alike.

It’s featured quite a diverse output, from the deeper stuff of earlier releases from the likes of your Linkwood & family project to the more ambient, experimental-electronica like the recent Lord of Isles release. What’s the central musical policy to all of it?

We’ve always had a fairly diverse output from the start. Even in the first EPs, we tried to create these mini worlds where you could get lost in the art and different music styles. I was careful not to commit to any one style or genre, in order to open up the field for future releases. For example, two of my favourite recent projects were ‘Mac-Talla Nan Creag’ (FIREC015) and Les Gracies ‘Low Doses’ (FIREC020), are both pretty far out, but also with some common threads of previous projects; this in turn allowing even weirder doors to be opened in the future. So, it’s hard to pin down any sort of central theme but I’m definitely drawn to music and artists experimenting and pushing what’s considered to be ‘dance music’ out the traditional ‘scene’.

The sub-labels Unthank (which appears to be more of dance-floor orientated imprint) and Shevchenko, an exclusive vehicle for Vakula it seems, just add everything from Techno to Breakbeats to that diverse list. Where do they take over from Firecracker and why did you opt to make them sub-labels?

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. Ha! At the time, there was some music I wanted to release but felt it didn’t fit in with what Firecracker was at that time. I set up Unthank to be an outlet for more surprising club stuff but it became it’s own thing as well. And yes, you’re right about Shevchenko; it was pretty much exclusively for Vakula who was prolific back then. With hindsight, it would have made sense just to release it all on Firecracker but it’s fun to have some different identities to play with visually.

Vakula, Lord of Isles and Linkwood have all been regular features across the labels. What emphasis do you place on working with the same artists throughout?

We are friends firstly. The core crew back home are Nick Moore (Linkwood), Neil McDonald  (Lord Of The Isles) and Gav Sutherland (Other Lands, formerly Fudge Fingas). We all live pretty close and see each other regularly so there’s no way to avoid a long-term relationship! Everyone’s on their own trip and it’s cool to see that evolution, whether it’s on Firecracker or their own projects. And if an artist wants to get on board long term then that’s a bonus.

Although you are a part of the Linkwood family group, your own music very rarely makes it onto the label. Why do you prefer to keep that distance as a label boss?It’s not really a conscious decision. At the time of the Linkwood Family tracks myself and Nick were flatmates so it was easy to collaborate on ideas. Music production has always taken a back seat for me because of dealing with artwork, printing and day to day running of the label but I have a few things in the pipeline. I’ve just worked with Jonny Nash on an LP of strange sounds from Bali, which we recorded and mixed there in November last year. It’s out this Summer on Island Of The Gods (who released the amazing Hipnotik Tradisi by Black Merlin).*

There’s a lot of emphasis on a visual presentation. What do you hope the visual accompaniment brings to the releases away from the music?

It’s always been massively important to me to have the artwork co-existing with the music, to explore new and weird techniques in it’s production, just the same as approaching the music making. I hope this experimentation and results inspires current and future artists, as much as the music does for me! From 2007-2015 I used to do all of the artwork myself. Since then Al White (from Glasgow’s 12th Isle label and crew) has worked closely with me, collaborating on projects and recently handling design and print himself (Lord Of The Isles FIREC021, and with Roos Dijkhuizen on DJ Sports FIREC023). Big up that talented man!

The artwork has developed from those comic graphics during those first Various releases to the psychedelic stuff on those recent unthank releases. Is it something that develops with the music, the label or just personally?

It’s definitely a combination of all three. Just as a musician or dj constantly digs, finding new inspiration and in turn creating a story, I hope the same thing happens with the evolution of the artwork and covers. It would be really boring if, thirteen years on from our first release that we were still making those 10”s with the female character on them! At the time, it felt right and that was our source material then. It’s important to keep trying new stuff, but also to refer back to older and more successful visual ideas. One of the main things I’ve always been conscious of is not to pay too much attention to what is going on with trends in design and our ‘club scene’ which can be hugely self-referential and cyclical. By using techniques like collage, automatic drawing and found imagery, I find it’s easier to work fast and without pretension. The same can be said of approaches to music making; the early pioneers of ‘acid house’ used sampling techniques that had more in common with the immediacy of ‘musique concrète’ than it it does with today’s gentrified and self-conscious dance music scene.

The Rings around Saturn release, which was a special edition laser cut version is probably the prettiest piece of packaging I’ve seen this year so far for a record. It’s definitely a bit of a lost art I find with all these basic brown cardboard sleeves I’ve seen. What labels/artists do you draw your inspiration from in your artwork and the importance you place on the art?

Thank you. Yes, this militant Hardwax-style approach to packaging a record has never really appealed to me. In that same way, being a ‘serious’ collector or a purist. I mean, you’re collecting dance music after all. Wasn’t that meant to be ‘fun’? Any artist and/or label that can combine humour/artwork/melancholia/self-deprecation etc etc in music or artwork inspires me. And that includes a one sided recording of a bass drum or even a special edition latex dildo! By the way, the Unthank special editions we make aren’t laser cut. You might think so, but each one is handmade with the holes being ‘punched’ using a metal tool (originally used for leatherwork) and hammer. Each one takes about one hour to complete.

Wow that’s a lot of effort. Do you still produce all the packaging personally by hand?

Yes, absolutely. Every single record is hand printed and assembled in our studio.

With so much effort going into the style of a record, I imagine that the music needs to be very special indeed before you even attempt a release. What are the absolutely essential characteristics of a piece of music before you even consider a release?

It really does vary. Sometimes, like the Lnrdcroy LP, it had already been released as a cassette. So everything was there and only a few tweaks had to be made. Sometimes, we’ll start with nothing and build a release, which might take months or years. That’s when it’s a careful, back-and-forth process of selection and evolution of tracks by myself and the artist. I really can’t say there’s any essential characteristics because each release has it’s own vibe entirely. I just have to be 100% feeling it.

Do you approach it at all like you would a DJ set? What would you hope the records on the label suggest about your DJ sets?

I never plan what to play, or in what order, only selecting from the vibe that particular night. So in that respect yes! There’s this Bakey Ustl record (UNTHANK001) that I still go back to because it reminds me of the importance of a few things while playing records in a dark club to suggestive bodies. That is to not take yourself too seriously, approach from as many weird angles as possible, combine influences to create something new, speed it up and slow it down, don’t be scared of moments of silence in a club (the energy should be there to carry it) and most importantly make those bodies dance hard!

* You can hear a couple of tracks from that release on the NTS show streaming above.