Label of the Month: Stroboscopic Artefacts

Following its 10-year-anniversary tour, Paul Hanford looks at Stroboscopic Artefacts, an imprint that’s as aesthetically distinctive as it is utterly elusive to categorise.

22 min
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Feb 9, 2020
Paul Hanford

“When I was nine or ten, I had the chance to live in Havana for a while,” Luca Mortellaro says, his voice rising warmly with recollection.

“I was going for walks to this little harbor along the coast where there were these kids playing percussion for an infinite amount of hours on the sea. I was going every fucking day, playing, playing, playing, just playing, making friends and playing. I remember that was the time where I was like… I will never, ever leave music. This is my fucking lot.”

Luca’s voice glides out of my iPhone like a chef in love with his ingredients, as he casts his mind back to the decades before he launched his label. And for a small moment, he once again becomes a young boy from Palermo, Southern Italy, finding rhythms in Cuba during the golden age of Castro.

“There’s nothing that makes me feel like that. Like, obsessive, loopy, incredible rhythms that makes my body move. I still see it as very close to what I do nowadays,” he says. “That’s what dance floor stuff is. It’s our ethnic community. You know what I mean?”

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It’s the night before Stroboscopic Artefacts’ 10-year-anniversary tour arrives in Berlin, Luca’s adopted hometown. Over the past few months, the tour has hit Warsaw, Hamburg, London, Tallinn, Madrid, Prague and Montreal. But as Luca explains, “For Berlin, I wanted something very special.” In one sleep’s time, alongside Rrose, Shifted and Silent Servant, and Luca — better known under his DJ/producer nom de pleur Lucy — will take 500 people into the immersive 4D sound world of MONOM. As it comes alive across 48 omnidirectional speakers, MONOM’s spatial effect creates a sound-world that tangibly breathes and pulses around you. Maybe it’s an untypical way for a label with such a reliable dance floor representation to present an anniversary, but then Stroboscopic Artefacts have increasingly encouraged experimentation, often simultaneously alongside main-room momentum; one foot in the dark room, the other in a space undefined.

It’s a feeling present from the very first sound you hear on the label’s very first release, back in September 2009. Lucy’s “Why Don’t You Change” begins with the sound of a heartbeat. Pumped up, looped and bass-intensified as the track progresses, textures weave and flower, like flesh growing from the spine of a dry kick drum. “Why Don’t You Change” came out of a time when Luca had relocated to Berlin from Paris.

“I moved because I wanted to open a record label. It was very important for me because I’ve been making music for a lifetime,” he says. “Until then, I was releasing music here and there, whatever was happening. And at some point, I had this feeling that I need to make a proper artistic statement. To do that, I needed some form of discipline, so I really shut down, cut off all my contacts in the industry, and just focused on doing this label. And that helped me also in focusing on a certain sound. That first EP was a full-on manifestation of that.

Luca describes that period in Berlin’s history as “very, very important.” Artists could live fairly easily on very little, “and that’s pretty much what I tried to do,” he says. Berghain was little over four years old (and Ellen DeGeneres had still never heard of it), an apartment in Mitte still cost a few hundred bucks a month, and the streets were blissfully free of E-Scooters — an idealistic fantasy for most artists arriving today. Within these surroundings, so amenable to making art, it took Luca just over a year to create the foundations for both Stroboscopic Artefacts and his artistic output as Lucy.

“It’s a little bit the same for a writer, from writing your own intimate diary and wanting to go onto write the novel. You confront yourself with much bigger architecture, much more complex dynamics,” Luca says. Throughout our conversation, he returns to the significance of words. At one point, he mentions a previous incarnation of Luca Mortellaro, who was a writer of short stories and novels: “I’m an avid reader, and I was an avid writer,” he says, laughing gently. It’s a quick, throwaway comment dropped into the context of another characteristic of his musical output: Field recordings, sampled speech, and stories, which are sometimes distorted and woven into the fabric of a track; half present, like the sound of a voice as you’re waking from a dream. Much like in “Why Don’t You Change.”

“The sacred power of words is something I’ve been very, very connected to since I was a teenager. It’s something that stuck in me, almost like a frame I can give for the music,” Luca says. Sometimes the words take a more visceral form. Listening to Luca’s Dyscamupia is like being thrust into a film noir, where a voice as graveled as rocks in the desert weaves a story — part Cormac McCarthy, part Alejandro Jodorowsky — over ghostly, spare techno. It’s interesting that in techno, a musical form that often exists entirely without words — where transformative, transcendent experiences can take place without uttering a single syllable — that to Luca, they imbue this life-giving source. This rings especially true when I ask about the label name.

“I wanted to give these two words,” Luca says. “One is Stroboscopic, it’s not only a clear reference to the clubbing, and most of the time the darker side of clubbing, like a room with only strobe lights. But it’s also about the technique of stroboscopic photography that captures different fragments of a movement over time. And Artefacts, because I really like this idea of something that is very handmade, the signature of one particular artist behind each of these artefacts.” This idea of a handmade signature carries across an extended family of bold yet disparate producers who are attracted to SA, often taking sojourns from other labels, even their own, in order to leave their signature within a new creative context.

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It’s now the day of the MONOM show. Yet, I’m several kilometers away, walking across the Oberbaumbrüke bridge above the cold Spree water below, on the phone with producer and label owner Alessandro Adriani. Last year, Adriani stepped away from his Mannequin Records imprint to work with Stroboscopic Artefacts for the second time, with his album Morphic Dreams.

“I was really, really interested to see how Luca works and how he’s able to do something completely different with my music,” Alessandro tells me, speaking from Italy. “And I like this kind of stuff because it’s pushing me to the limit, and to territories where I would never pass through, you know? I was totally trusting Luca’s taste in music. I would have made completely different choices.”

Morphic Dreams, is constructed around sometimes beautiful and sometimes propulsive analog pulses, where synths sparkle and arpeggiate. It feels timeless, both as an immersive listening experience, as well as how it recalls — without ever for one moment retro-fying — electronic music dating back to the 1970s: Krautrock, possibly Tangerine Dream, elements of EBM. He then describes how working with Luca opened up new creative pathways. “I like to experiment a lot. Sometimes I will make an electro track one time or a dream house track. Luca was really able to understand how to put all these together.”

Sentiments are echoed by American DJ and producer Rrose, one of the guests performing at the MONOM show. Taking this sense of collaboration a stage further, Rrose has released joint works with another SA artist, Kangding Ray, as well as with Lucy. One Rrose/Lucy split release, The Lotus Eaters EP from 2016, begins with the track “Chloroform” — nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds of rhythmical frequencies phasing and filtering through an atmospheric twilight, without the need of a prominent kick drum. It recalls both Lucy’s love of Krautrock, as well as Rrose’s influences by modern composers like György Ligeti and Conlon Nancarrow. I ask Rrose if part of the appeal to collaborate was in the label’s experimental approach.

“Definitely. I could see that the label was interested in branching out. The idea of working with strictly techno labels was never so exciting to me. I could see how the interest of the label overlapped somewhat with my own.”

Rrose explains how the collaboration helped birth a track like “Chloroform.” “We challenge each other in different ways because we have different ways of working. We have overlapping interests, but we also disagree on some aesthetic issues — there’s a nice kind of push and pull. We tease each other and make fun of each other, but we pull each other in different directions, and usually, something pretty interesting comes out of that.”

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Within all these disparities, the label was launched in Berlin little over a decade ago has developed an elusive yet particular identity in the vein of Warp or Basic Channel. Both labels are name-checked on the SA website. And both are imprints whose identities are, even now, as opaque as they are clear.

“A label is about curating a whole ensemble of elements, so that in the end, you have one strong, bold identity,” Luca explains. “After 10 years, I got to realize how we work so that the identity is strong without the need to make the same shit over and over again. Even if our roster is quite big and very, very various — there are things that are extremely dark and others are extremely banging, others are extremely experimental — but still the perception of our label is one body. That’s what’s important to me.”

Luca cites mastering, post-production and graphic design as crucial factors that help a cohesion across the label. Those external elements sit in tandem with providing artists the creative freedom to discover new forms of sonic expression. It springs to mind Factory Records. In particular, the way graphic designer Peter Saville’s high modernist sleeve art for the legendary Manchester imprint helped create an umbrella that could equally accommodate the working-class surrealism of Happy Mondays; The Durutti Column’s fragile guitar textures; and the giant arc that led from Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and Ian Curtis to England’s World Cup football anthem, “World In Motion,” bridged by the reproduction of Henri Fantin-Latour’s “A Basket of Roses” painting for New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies record sleeve. If, for Factory Records, this familial resemblance was achieved through sleeve design, one way Stroboscopic Artefacts does this is through mastering.

“After working with Luca for 10 years now, I know more or less what he wants to feel or hear,” Giovanni Conti, the mastering engineer of every SA release since day one, explains. Taking the finished track of an artist, Gio uses the tools of his outboard chain — compression, limiting, and equalisers — to “try to maximize the expressive potential of each piece of music I work on,” he says

“It’s not that we have meetings, and there are no written rules, but me, the graphic designer and Luca, we kind of have a shared aesthetic sense,” Giovanni continues. “Especially at the beginning, before the label became more established, this really helped to shade a strong identity, making the label stand out from many others doing similar things, but maybe taking less risks or releasing tracks that didn’t have as many memorable or special elements as Stroboscopic.”

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Giovanni, who was at one point part of the echoed-out musical collective Dadub, moved to Berlin around the same time Luca did, finding himself in the same economic and cultural surroundings. I get the feeling from hearing these artist’s stories — by the way they pay compliments to one another while making light of their differences — that I am actually talking with a family.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Luca laughs. “It’s funny that you say that. At the beginning we were a very tiny family. Now it’s lots of people involved with its own fights, craziness, and shit. But still, it’s family. In the last five years, I’ve found myself as a label head more and more like, ‘Okay, I really like you as an artist, so it’s not about the one track that you’re giving me that I like. It’s to do with our approach to music and the dance floor, to techno in general. I trust you, and so let’s work on something.’ It’s not anymore about the single actual output, the single track.”

Luca is keenly aware of how radically Berlin has changed in the decade since his arrival, acknowledging that without the city’s cheap rents and cost of living, there could be no Stroboscopic Artefacts. Within this landscape, risks could be taken, including, he explains, the method to how he first got to play Berghain. “It was such a huge honor. These guys from Ostgut just sent a simple email. I never met anyone. They were just like, ‘I like what you’re doing. Do you want to do a showcase?’ As simple as it was.”

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Giovanni echoes these sentiments. “Berlin is becoming more and more normalized. But I have to say it’s kind of a selfish thing because I know as long as Berlin stays fucked up as it was then life is cheaper. Living here is much easier than living in London, New York, Los Angeles or other big capital cities. For a musician or for an artist it was easier to live in Berlin before. Now you really need to get your head in the game. Rents went up probably 200 percent in the past five years, and wages are not really increasing proportionally. It brings a certain natural selection.”

This toughening up of the city also echoes in the transition Luca has undergone as a label head, negotiating the ins and outs of nurturing Stroboscopic. For instance, certain sounds that were once fresh and underground now desperately need to be left alone. I get the feeling that for Luca, the sonic emphasis is about the continuation and development of a certain philosophical core over maintaining devotion to a specific sound.

“For me, somehow electronic music has been emotionally connected to a sense of gegen, of going against,” he says. “What I learned is to maintain it. That’s the difficult part sometimes. Like when things are not so simple anymore, and you have a lot of people around you that are even dependent on us, your whole team starts to become bigger and bigger, and all of a sudden, you find yourself in a system that is also a business. A system. And that’s when you have to really take care of standing your ground properly.”

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The final phase of the anniversary celebrations includes Lucy’s own Reworks EP, something he’s taken a very personal approach on, beginning with a remix of Donato Dozzy’s 2014 track “Sotto Ma Sotto,” which slows down the BPM and adds textures of analog bass. It also marks a moment when the label has broadened to include artists from outside of the immediate and early SA collective, like Xhin and Dadub.

“I picked four tracks which have been important, not so much for the label or for our fanbase, but really intimately for myself — my personal history in the last 10 years. Those are four tracks that have been the result of four very important human relationships I had.” The release, which also includes reworks of tracks by Caterina Barbieri, Xhin, as well as a Lucy collaboration with Klock, follows on from a more conventionally — yet no less exquisitely curated — 13-track retrospective: X – Ten Years Of Artefacts, released in November.

“We celebrated, we glorified a little bit our past,” Luca says. “At the same time, it’s hard to let go, a little bit like getting rid of your weight on the world, the weight of your history, and somehow even of your success; to consider it’s been a successful label in the sense that we’re still on our feet and not bankrupt. Even if the industry is very difficult at the moment for record labels, we’re somehow still there, and that I consider being successful.”

Luca laughs and adds that as far as plans for the future, revealing upcoming releases, tours, collaborations, these things are very much under wraps. Fair enough, But what, I ask, could the shape of techno itself be like at the time of Stroboscopic’s 20-year-anniversary celebrations in 2030?

“Techno has always been identified as, at least at the start, the music of the future. I just hope 10 years from now we’ll be able to paint and represent a soundtrack for the world in the way we see it.”

Paul Hanford is a freelance journalist and radio presenter living in Berlin. Find him on Twitter.