Andy Turner and Ed Handley return with Plaid’s euphoric ‘Feorm Falorx’, an intriguing concept album about performing at an intergalactic festival on a distant planet. As you do. Stand by for stories about their time in The Black Dog and working with Björk

On a bright autumn afternoon in suburban north London, veteran electro explorers Plaid appraise me of their recent musical mission to outer space. Over ferociously strong coffee and a kitchen table groaning with homemade cakes, Andy Turner and Ed Handley recount boldly going to the faraway planet of Falorx to play an extraterrestrial music festival that inspired the gloopy, shiny, funky, dreamy, retro-futuristic sounds of their excellent new album, ‘Feorm Falorx’.

After making their epic cosmic journey on a spaceship called The Campbell, the duo tell me they had to convert their physical forms into light to survive the planet’s atmosphere. Had they perhaps consumed any, er, refreshing stimulants before or during their intergalactic trip?

“Not at all,” Turner insists. “The thing with Falorx is that it’s a very intense environment. We can best describe what happened as being turned into light – you’re not physically there, so you can’t really consume anything. It’s more like your consciousness is there. There is a physical form but it’s not physics as we know it.”

Uh-huh… sure, Jim. As fate would have it, no recording devices are allowed on Falorx, so we only have the pair’s word that they were there. The festival also operates a strict ban on cameras, much like Berlin’s notorious techno palace, Berghain. Hang on, are Plaid totally sure that this gig didn’t actually take place in Berghain?

“Hmmm,” Turner frowns. “It didn’t feel like Berghain…”

While Turner maintains an impressively deadpan manner throughout this whimsical flimflam, Handley struggles to keep a straight face. One of the most unassuming and unpretentious bands from the fertile early wave of post-rave electronica, Plaid have never been especially conceptual in approach, so this goofy sci-fi backstory is new territory for them.

In fairness, the Falorx angle seems to be driven more by the album’s visual dimension, which incorporates dazzling promo videos and live graphics generated using cutting-edge AI software, and even a spin-off illustrated mini-novel, ‘Journey To Feorm Falorx’. At a handful of test gigs – dry runs for a full tour – the visuals have proved a hit.

“The aliens loved it and humans seem to love it too,” Turner nods. “We generally have pretty good vibes at our shows.”

The roots of Plaid lie not in deep space, of course, but in rural East Anglia. Which is close, but not quite the same thing. Although Handley grew up in Cambridge and Turner in Windsor, they both spent their teens in the sleepy Suffolk town of Stowmarket. They first met at school, bonding over a shared love of hip hop, electronic music and breakdancing. The duo still go misty-eyed about StreetSounds, the cult label formed by Morgan Khan in 1982, which helped lay the ground for the rave and techno boom in Britain with its seminal series of electro, hi-NRG and early rap compilations.

“Morgan Khan was so influential,” Handley says.

“It was all hip hop back then,” Turner adds. “Then it sort of split off into electro and rap in the early 90s. My first job interview was for StreetSounds! And I got the job, but I was living outside London so I lost it. I guess I would have been doing promotion or something. This was before I started making music. I was quite a young teenager.”

Turner and Handley began collaborating in their late teens with the basic tools of the emerging DIY electro era – an Akai sampler, Roland keyboards, primitive sequencers and drum machines. Moving down to London in 1987, they went on to form techno collective The Black Dog with Ken Downie, having answered his advert in NME. They also immersed themselves in the semi-underground acid house, warehouse party and pirate radio scenes. Finding a booming urban subculture of like-minded electronic fans was life-changing for two young chancers from Suffolk.

“I’m not sure it changed the world as much as we hoped,” Handley frowns. “You could argue we all failed. But yeah, on an individual level you met lots of people whose lives were affected in a lovely way. They became more open and less judgmental, avoiding the class system in the UK and all the stereotypes that went with it. That just fell away with some people, which was a brilliant thing.”

It was a hedonistic, druggy scene, Turner recalls.

“We did all our partying before we started writing – in the late 1980s, on the cusp of us starting to put music together,” he says. “So the first things that we were writing were super-influenced by those huge parties. It was such a mash-up of different styles and loads of stuff that we hadn’t been exposed to before.”

But contrary to popular opinion, Handley argues that mind-altering chemicals and electronic music are not natural bedfellows.

“You need to know when to stop,” he insists. “You can’t really write music and be that hedonistic, especially if you’re using computers and electronics – it’s a complete nightmare if you’re too out of it. In the scenes we were part of, there were quite a lot of drugs, but at some point you’ve got to decide. We did plenty of it to know that there’s some teaching and some learning, but there’s also some destruction.”

Following a lengthy run of DIY releases, The Black Dog finally landed a deal with the groundbreaking Warp label, which remains Plaid’s home to this day. Turner remembers the fax that Warp’s late co-founder Rob Mitchell sent from Sheffield way back in 1992, after the band released their debut album, ‘Mbuki Mvuki’.

“Warp were huge,” he says. “We were aware of their purple label releases, of course. Then one day, we got a fax from Rob – I think we’ve still got it. He liked a track on the first album called ‘Scoobs In Columbia’. Yeah, we were very lucky… there weren’t that many people making this kind of music back then.”

Image: Emma Catnip

Meanwhile, at home in Suffolk, the late, great Radio 1 DJ John Peel was another early champion of Turner and Handley, in both their Black Dog and Plaid guises. Indeed, Peel once claimed to have seen the teenage duo breakdancing on the mean streets of Stowmarket. Turner disputes this, but they were certainly close neighbours.

“John Peel used to live just down the road from my folks,” he recalls. “We used to see him quite a lot. I remember going over there with my dad and dropping off test pressings to him. He played some Black Dog stuff really early on.”

The duo’s six-year collaboration with Downie as The Black Dog proved fruitful but fractious, spanning three well-regarded albums plus multiple EPs and related releases under various incarnations. But tensions grew between them, eventually leading to a falling out and their split in 1995. Shortly after, Plaid made the leap from side project to standalone band with their own Warp deal. So why Plaid?

“We were trying to come up with the least glamorous name we could,” explains Handley.

“Many years after we were called Plaid, we started to find some reasons why we might be called Plaid,” Turner adds, laughing. “The thinking originally was like in American movies… when you come back from the office, you take off your suit and put on a plaid shirt. I guess in those early days we were still doing regular jobs, so it made sense. But then we decided we didn’t like that reason, so we made up other ones, ha!”

By the mid-90s, The Black Dog had already forged a profile-boosting connection as one of Björk’s hand-picked harem of electronic collaborators. Plaid continued this partnership, remixing several of the Icelandic art-pop queen’s tracks, including ‘Big Time Sensuality’ and ‘All Is Full Of Love’.

Björk then invited the duo onto the latter half of her marathon ‘Post’ tour, travelling across Asia and South America for almost a year. After they returned to London, she sang lead vocals on ‘Lilith’ for the second Plaid album, 1997’s ‘Not For Threes’. Working with an artist of Björk’s starry stature, both in a business and creative sense, left a deep impression.

“We learned how to be a bit more professional because there was no room for mistakes,” Handley laughs. “I think up to that point we’d been working around the rave scene and it was quite slapdash. We’d have lots of crashes while we were playing because we were using a laptop and it would go down mid-set. So it was that, and also just a glimpse of how it could be when you make lots of money, staying in nice hotels…”

Most of all, Handley recalls, working with Björk was a galvanising lesson in how pop music can be a passionate, personal, progressive art form.

“It was more her dedication and devotion, and the team around her,” he nods. “It was partly about making money, but you could see it was driven by this burning energy to create and to do new stuff. That was very inspiring. It wasn’t really a commercial endeavour – there was something else going on that was important to her existence. It confirmed to us that with a certain amount of dedication, you can make it work.”

The duo haven’t worked with Björk for 25 years, but they remain on friendly terms. Indeed, by coincidence, our interview takes place hours before their latest London reunion.

“We’re going to see her tonight, actually,” Turner says with a matter-of-fact shrug. “She’s got a listening party for her new album.”

The kitchen is suddenly full of glittery magic as the classiest, most casual name-drop in history hangs in the air.

Creative partners since the 80s and with their 30th Warp anniversary looming, Plaid have sustained a long-haul career without ever being too troubled by the ebbs and flows of fashion. They rarely score high chart placings or big-selling albums. Even so, unlike many of their peers, they remain full-time musicians, plotting their own eccentric course between Planet Earth and Planet Plaid.

“We kind of bob along around zero all the time,” Turner says. “But we are incredibly fortunate to be able to do that. So many artists have other jobs or just a bit of time in the evenings. We’re lucky enough to have been able to do this professionally since 1996. I feel so grateful for that. I really hated working for other people, so it’s been perfect for me.”

“We’ve had some dire moments but we’ve managed to survive,” Handley admits. “We have done a few other little things when asked, like teaching and academic work, because we’ve learned a fair bit of technical stuff over the years. But we haven’t had to do that for financial reasons… yet. Ha!”

Perhaps the secret of Plaid’s longevity is that rather than being narrow techno purists, they’ve always brought organic elements and acoustic instruments into their luminous and expansive electronic canvas. As well as working with Björk, their back catalogue includes wide-ranging collaborations with singers such as Nicolette, video artist Bob Jaroc, the animated film director Michael Arias, Indonesian gamelan composer Rahayu Supanggah and more. They also have an ongoing musical partnership with guitarist and violinist Benet Walsh, aka Mason Bee. The closest thing to a third Plaid member, Walsh brings moody post-punk textures to ‘Nightcrawler’, one of the standout tracks on ‘Feorm Falorx’.

Plaid’s signature brand of electronica has always been promiscuous, inclusive and hard to categorise. Over the years, they’ve been labelled IDM, post-techno, ambient and more. But their default setting is essentially pop in the best sense – vivid and funky, melodic and infectious. Pop is not a dirty word on Planet Plaid.

Indeed, they baulk at being described as an experimental band.

“The pop industry is pretty ugly, but a lot of pop music is great,” Handley says. “We do like to experiment, but when you hear the stuff that gets called experimental, we are quite a long way from that. There is always a pop and electro thing going on with us. Our work is pretty broad, but it’s mostly informed by dance music.”

This is certainly evident at Plaid’s high-energy live shows, which draw a lively raver contingent alongside the obligatory middle-aged techno chin-strokers.

“A bit of both is great,” Handley grins. “Having people dancing at the front really makes a difference. If there are a few really good dancers, then everyone else feels comfortable dancing.”

“We have a pretty mixed crowd compared to some artists,” Turner agrees. “It’s not 100 per cent men with beards. I think we still have a lot of fun in us. It’s not completely serious all the time.”

Andy Turner and Ed Handley are essentially still teenage b-boys at heart. Even in their early 50s, they are always on the verge of doing the electric boogaloo, at least in their minds. When was the last time Plaid actually did any breakdancing?

“Not recently,” Turner sighs. “Occasionally, when I’m extremely drunk, I try something. But yeah, the whole weight distribution thing has changed enormously.”

Crucially, for all its conceptual ‘Star Trek’ trimmings, ‘Feorm Falorx’ is a classic Plaid album, with three decades of post-rave electro goodness squeezed into its kinetic, fizzing, radiant grooves. If it summons up vintage dance-pop memories from the late 80s, that’s no accident.

“It’s a very conscious decision,” Turner says. “When we were putting this together, going back to the Feorm Festival, we wanted to give aliens a selection of the music we love. So I think this album does unashamedly look back at the 80s, and even the 70s on one track. We just wanted to do something that represented our 30 years so far, from where we started to where we’re going.”

Falorx certainly sounds like a fun place to visit, but only for a short while. There are countless other musical galaxies out there waiting to be explored, but right now, the weather on Planet Plaid is pretty fine.

‘Feorm Falorx’ is out on Warp

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