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Pushing the envelope: Dense & Pika are the most unique act in modern techno

The sheer weight of their music has conquered the techno charts

  • Words: Joe Roberts | Photos: Jono Sidwell
  • 5 May 2017

Pushed back to the closing set due to a delayed flight, Dense & Pika – aka Hypercolour co-founder Alex Jones and Chris Spero, previously known as Glimpse – are finally at the controls of Coded Rhythm in Manchester. Unleashing a scything open hi-hat, Alex punches the air and looks out over the black sweaty box that is Gorilla, tonight’s venue, the front row lined with grinning 20-somethings. There’s a parade of their productions, including the much-anticipated remix of Tiga’s ‘Louder Than A Bomb’, but alongside this they twist and reconstitute classics from Underground Resistance’s ‘Transitions’ to Yarbrough & Peoples ‘Don’t Stop The Music’. At 4am, though, it all has to stop. With Dublin and Barcelona following this weekend, it’s only the start of the pair’s whirlwind schedule.

From 2011’s beginnings releasing anonymous white labels, Dense & Pika are now the most distinctive act in modern techno, combining the groove of tech-house with the clanking, industrial strength of tough techno. It’s taken them to world’s biggest stages, including Amsterdam’s Awakenings, thanks to signing with Adam Beyer’s Drumcode, the pair teaming up with the Swede for last year’s ‘Going Down’, a beast built from dissonant horns, blasts of bass, breakbeat fills and a twisted vocal from Chris. They’re remixers with the golden touch too, tearing up the rule book that advises never touch a classic by adding their gritty stomp to Paul Woolford’s ‘Erotic Discourse’, Audion’s ‘Mouth To Mouth’ and now Tiga (“After their epic remix of ‘Planet E’, as well as a thousand other techno anthems, I felt the result was guaranteed,’ says the Canadian). It’s all provided a launch-pad for the next phase, taking their Kneaded Pains label – an anagram of Dense and Pika – on the road. They have such a unique take on the techno sound – they don’t sound like anyone else on the scene,” reckons Adam Beyer. “They have their own methods and ways of producing to the point where they take it right to the edge and push the envelope. When they really nail it the results push into that genius level that many producers never reach.”

“Everyone says we have our own sound, but it’s just what we like,” says Alex, camouflaged for the night in black jeans, T-shirt and trainers, back at the hotel as a post-gig drink morphs into a boozy late-night interview. “It comes from going out raving a lot. DJs and punters, especially people on drugs, just want something that hits them.”

“I remember I instantly knew that they were someone who had a different, fresh approach to making music,” concurs Chris Liebing later. “Since then they have come up with numerous tracks that have helped me play better sets and bring amazing moments to the dancefloor.”

Both aged 36, Alex moved to Buckinghamshire from his previous base of Shoreditch after having a child, and Chris recently left West London to relocate to Ibiza with his wife and two daughters – but Dense & Pika distills the pair’s past experiences of what Alex labels “an old-school tear-up”.

Raised on garage and jungle, listening to the likes of Zed Bias, Brockie and Randall, Alex started work as a D&AD Award-winning graphic designer, DJing on the side at Brighton’s Big Beat Boutique, alongside Touché and Radio Slave, as The Insurgents. “Before that he was called Monkey Tennis,” claims Chris, referencing gaffe-prone journalist Alan Partridge (whose long-suffering secretary inspired Dense & Pika’s 2015’s ‘Lynn’ EP). Chris, meanwhile – who is breaking the techno mould in blue jeans – started making music at just eight, “From being in bands...”, he starts, “to [DJing in] prison,” finishes Alex, displaying the symbiotic humour honed by too much time together in airports and studios. “Reading Young Offenders,” confirms Chris, again apparently serious. “I played Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears In Heaven’. They wanted to stab me.”

Soft rock diversions aside, it was acid techno legends The Liberator Crew that inspired Chris’ first releases 16 years ago, at the same time that he was getting his earliest gigs in London’s free party scene. “I used to turn up on a Friday evening and play on Monday morning. Usually I’d play to two people, but occasionally it would be two thousand.” From there he discovered the hard techno of Surgeon, Jeff Mills, Ben Sims and Regis.

The pair met around 2002 at Mad Records in Soho, where Chris had a studio in the basement and Alex was more interested in hanging out than going back to work. Deciding to jack in his well paid job to make music full time, it went “fairly badly” at first, the turning point starting label Hypercolour with Jamie Russell, then forming Glimpse with Alex for their first release, 2006’s ‘Talking To Girls’ EP.

Despite Glimpse’s subsequent 2010 Crosstown Rebels’ album ‘Runner’, making deep house didn’t sit with Chris’s musical roots. So, having previously collaborated with Alex on 2007’s ‘Felaz’ (“Ricardo Villalobos is heavily into ‘Felaz’,” Alex jokes regarding the feedback they’d been gunning for), the pair hit the studio – and something clicked. Sven Väth licensed ‘Vomee’ – so called, says Alex, after a pill made him feel sick – to ‘The Sound Of The Twelfth Season’, and labels began knocking.

They may have begun anonymously out of fear of rejection, but Dense & Pika was immediately greater than the sum of its parts. “He has some of the most incredible ideas, things I’d never be able to think of, just sitting in his kitchen with Apple iPhone headphones,” says Chris. “It’ll be unplayable, but there’ll be a spark in it. And I can take that idea, run with it and make sense of it.” They’re not reinventing the wheel, but what they’ve honed is making everything sound as heavy as possible. “It’s not Bruckner,” says Chris. “It’s not Right Said Fred,” agrees Alex. Meeting them at Sónar, Mathew Dear even asked them for their production secrets. “But I still haven’t been able to get that huge kick they’re renowned for,” he says.

The sense of trust extends to their DJ performances, with Alex on Traktor and Maschine and Chris controlling Ableton – a set-up recommended by Richie Hawtin after he booked their previous live show to warm up for Enter. “It was a disaster,” recalls Chris. “He put us on first and we only had twelve or fifteen tracks, all really gnarly.”

Scuba’s Hotflush was their first home, the melancholic pianos of 2013’s ‘Colt’ – compared by an enthusiastic Noel Gallagher to ‘Strings of Life’ – proving a breakthrough and topping Beatport’s Deep House chart, leading to a brief period of mismatched bookings. But it’s been Beyer’s advice, professionalism and skills as a DJ that’s pushed them forward. “He told us, ‘The problem with you two is I’m a DJ, you’re not’,” says Alex. “’When you write music, you go all over the place. For someone like me, you want to have natural progression’. We’ve learned so much.”

After another techno institution, Glasgow’s Slam, recently remixed their ‘Cartoon Hearts’ track for Kneaded Pains, they’re keen to become similarly independent operators. Starting a series of Kneaded Pains parties, the first taking over Room 2 of Fabric on April 22, Onno, Melody’s Enemy, Myles Serge and Nikola Gala are all lined up to join the label, with remixes coming from Danny Daze and 2000 And One.

“If you look at our back catalogue it goes from ferocious techno to almost ambient stuff,” Alex says. “That’s why we’ve always dreamed of making an album, but when we do we want to show everything, so it’s going to be hard.” Citing festival-headlining inspirations like The Chemical Brothers and Underworld, plus Sepultura drummer Igor Cavalera as a non-techno name they’re already working with, it looks like Dense & Pika are set to redefine themselves again.

Meeting for a bleary-eyed lunch the next day, we’re surrounded by football fans in the hotel restaurant. “I’ve gone into kid mode because I can’t go out in the week,” grins Alex as he brings over a round of pints to start the day. “When it comes to the weekend, the gloves are off.”

Dense & Pika’s Kneaded Pains label hosts Room 2 @ Fabric with Yotam Avni in support

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