At the close of the ‘90s, the chasm between electronica and indie was vast. Integrating lush ‘70s analogue synths with indie sensibilities, a new quartet called Ladytron helped bridge the two communities, and neither indie rock nor electronica has been the same since.
Founding member Reuben Wu continues to navigate disparate worlds—whether as member of Ladytron, DJ, artist or photographer. Ahead of his DJ set at 390 bar tonight, Wu shared a few insights into how he connects the dots, both personally and artistically.
His photography depicts some of the planet’s oddest cultural and natural landscapes with meticulous minimalist composition and selection of colors. His series on the Atacama Desert, for instance, juxtaposes the sparse rocky palate of the landscape with colossal futuristic telescopes of local observatories. The photography is as stunning as Wu’s music, with which it shares more than a few parallels.
Fortunately, in the role that brings him to Shanghai—as a traveling DJ, Reuben can embrace lighter digital technology, performing with an arsenal of CDs that spans several eras and styles.
CW: We’re excited to have you playing Shanghai again.
Wu: I can’t wait to come back. It’s always exciting when I’m China. There’s lots to explore.
CW: We’ve loved your music for years, but only recently discovered your stellar photography. When you’re touring, are you also working on your photography or are the visual and sonic missions separate?
Wu: Creatively, I see them as separate entities, but practically, they’ve always been intertwined. Essentially, it was traveling with the band that encouraged me to do more photography. That’s where it was inspired from: all these places that I was traveling to. I’d be on tour or DJing and I’d make time to explore these amazing places around the world. In this case, though, I won’t be doing as much more exploring because I’m also busy writing new material for the next Ladytron album.
CW: Is your art photography strictly film or do you do digital work as well?
Wu: 98% of it is shot on film. However, I do own a digital camera and use it occasionally. I like film. I like the look of it. I enjoy the process of having a negative in front of me. It’s not entirely analog. I’m not a purist. I have my negatives processed then I scan them digitally. It’s like the music in that we use a lot of analog equipment. But the way we sequence and produce on top of that is via digital means. So, it’s a combination of the two worlds.
CW: In terms of the analog element with your synthesizer work and photography, are there other aesthetic parallels?
Wu: There always has to be an element of balance. That’s as far as it goes really. I don’t like images that are too complicated. I like simple images that show composition and lines, and simple subject matters. And I suppose in the music that’s what I attempt to do as well. I go for rich compositions that sound simple but there’s a lot of texture embedded in that. The other parallel is of course that you’re always carrying huge amounts of equipment with you. My camera is big, and so are the keyboards.
CW: What’s your setup for your DJ tours?
Wu: Very simple. I just use CDJs. I enjoy DJing and having a drink while I DJ, and if I drop a beer on the laptop, that’s the end. But CDs, they’re kind of disposable.
CW: What do you like to see in a crowd?
Wu: I just want people to dance. I can see that while we’re performing with the band and Helen and Mira are at the front, they have to have their on stage characters. But DJing is just a bloke playing music and it’s nice to see people dance and not worry about who’s playing the music. I like to be down in a corner, where I can be as close to the crowd as possible.
CW: What are you playing on this tour?
Wu: There’s a lot of tracks I’m playing at the moment. One of the artists I’ve been following is Daniel Avery, who’s on Erol Alkan’s Phantasy Sound label. I enjoy playing his stuff. It’s kind of house-y, electro-y. Goose is another band I’ve been playing. What else? A lot of old stuff. A lot of acid. “Voodoo Ray” by a Guy Called Gerald. “Acid Thunder” by Fast Eddie … It depends on what the crowd is like. With me being in the band, sometimes they’ll want me to play something more indie, a little more post-punk, a bit more raw. I’m anticipating that Shanghai will be more electronic.
CW: With Ladytron, what’s the process after you decide that you’re going to create a new album?
Wu: We start writing individually. We’ve never really lived in the same city before. We’ve always been geographically apart. Now more than ever. I’m in Chicago. Daniel’s in Sao Paulo. Helen’s in Scotland. Mira’s in London. It would be hard for us to get into a room and write together. And that’s never been how we’ve worked together.
It’s always been first as individuals, and then reviewing everything together, and then working on each other’s songs. That’s how we’ve always worked. And it goes well with how we make music. We do get together down the line and in the studio when we start fleshing out the tracks.
CW: It sounds very organic in process. Or, do you plan ahead to have a certain feeling?
Wu: It comes from the first demos we create. Each of us has different tastes musically, but we have a lot in common. That allows us a diversity ideas, and I also think that’s how each album sounds different from the others and at the same time maintaining identity, which we’ve always had. Working as a group, we get so many more ideas than if it was just one person coming up with the songs.
CW: You said you’re writing some of the new album while you’re traveling. Is the laptop how you approach songwriting or do you have other equipment when you travel?
Wu: I’m living in Chicago, and while I’m away, I do have a laptop and midi controllers with me. I do try to take out analogue synthesizers with me too. But in terms of writing demos and coming up with basic ideas, soft synths are useful tools. What we end up doing is layering a lot of analogue synths on top as well. When we get into the studio with all the dusty old gear, that’s when we stop swapping sounds out.
CW: What do you think of the analogue revival with Korg’s MS-20? Exciting, or do you still prefer the old analogue synths?
We’ve used a lot of MS-10s and MS-20s and they’re fantastic. But they are old and weren’t really designed to be taken out on tour. And many times on tour, we’ve had MS-20s go down just like that. One’s broken, then another one’s broken. So, we’ve often found ourselves on eBay on the road, winning these MS-20s and have them delivered to us to cities downstream. And we pick these up and they replace the old MS-20s.
It’s a costly and stressful process. We’ve had missed deliveries. We had one missed MS-20 that we kept missing and it kind of followed us around. So, we’ve thought for more than 10 years, wouldn’t it be amazing if Korg came out with a new MS-20 that didn’t break down? And finally, the new MS-20 mini has come out and it looks like everything we’ve wanted. I just wish it was full size.
CW: Anything else you should tell our readers that we forgot to ask about?
Wu: I think it will be exciting year. I hope we will be playing shows. And we’ll have a remix album out of remixes by other people of our last album in the next few months. And I hope the new album will be out in the autumn.
What: Reuben Wu at 390 Bar
When: Friday, March 22, 10pm