The men machine

Motor get to the brutal heart of industrial minimalism
By DAVID DAY  |  June 29, 2007

VIDEO: Motor, "Bleep #1"

Regardless of how many people you put on a stage or what kind of interface a performer uses, electronic music always seems to get a bad rap for being inhuman, unnatural, and/or impersonal. Not that this bothers Motor. Over the course of two albums, the dark techno trio from London have gone out of their way to strip their brand of electronic music down to its most facelessly inhuman basics. Based on the core duo of Mr. No (né Oliver Grasset) and Bryan Black (né Barton), who play live at Axis this Saturday with guitarist Hugo Menendez fleshing things out, Motor exploit the frigid and ersatz tendencies of techno to produce music that’s zero-Kelvin cold and as acidic as a dead car battery.

Motor are a side project for Grasset and Black (who were part of the London electro-rock outfit XLover), but by the release of their first album, last year’s Klunk (Mute), their shadowy personae had begun to penetrate the European dance scene, thanks in large part to industrialized remixes of Throbbing Gristle, Depeche Mode, and Cure tunes. With their new Unhuman (Mute), they’ve picked up where mechanized dance acts like Front 242 and even Depeche Mode at their coldest left off in the mid ’80s. “Even between the last two albums, we’ve learned to fine-tune the way we automate sound,” says Black on his cell from New York. “We’re moving more and more away from using traditional studio things — keyboards, mixers, amps, and stuff like that. Now we are doing a lot of it inside the computer.”

As a trio, Motor still play live instruments on stage. But in the studio, they’re an almost strictly computer-based operation. “Night Drive” pulses with synthesized handclaps and machine-like rhythms, with vocals that border on the alien. Explains Black, “Technology is getting better and better, such that the computer can model an analog synthesizer to make it sound as good as the real thing. And you get much more control over that sound — using filters, envelopes, and effects.”

Motor grew out of the more pop-oriented XLover after a Grasset/Black remix got more attention than the band. Working as a duo, Motor explored the outer edges of bleak, dark, synthesized sound, drawing more and more from industrial sources — groups like Clan of Xymox, Bauhaus, and Type O Negative. Black namechecks Ministry as an “all-time favorite. Nineties industrial was one of the first genres to really embrace sampling and vocal manipulation and drum sequencing. The production was really innovative.”

But Black, who’s from Minnesota, didn’t get his start at the Chicago industrial shrine Wax Trax, or even Butch Vig’s home to the loud and hard, Smart Studio. He was at Minneapolis’s Paisley Park, Prince’s home base, when he first met the Paris-born Grasset. “I started working with Prince because I needed the money,” he says, “but then I really started learning something about producing and engineering. I wasn’t even a fan of his music. But after I left, I realized how amazing his back catalogue was — stuff I had never really listened to before.”

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