Self-Portrait: Sarah Bates

Photo Credit: Nick George

We’ve been keeping tabs on Mancunian synth queen Sarah Bates for some time now; there’s something incredibly immersive and transcendent about her productions, regardless of whether it’s a blissed-out soundscape or a stuttering rhythmic workout. The outside world seems somewhat distant…

She takes an organic approach to making music. Nothing should ever be forced. Instead she waits for her machines to ‘call to her’. After jamming in her home studio for some time, last year she decided to take her set to the stage, spurred on by a residency she landed with Modular Projects/Push Music. She debuted at Gottwood during Ruffy’s takeover and caught the attention of Banoffee Pies co-founder Ell who quickly got in touch about releasing some of her material. Fantasy Modulations came out on the label in December and there’s talk of upcoming material being released a bit closer to home on Ruffy’s Ruf Kutz imprint.

Alongside a mix of unreleased music, comprising of lots of different jams, Sarah chats to us about her approach to production, taking her set from studio to live and how the beauty is usually in the imperfections…

Let’s start with an ice breaker, what’s your earliest musical memory?

I was mad about Madonna when I was a little girl – I remember seeing the Cherish video with the mermaids and I was hooked. I loved and still love her early music the best. I got The Immaculate Collection for my birthday or Christmas and I listened to it over and over again. I would cry to ‘Live To Tell’ and I was only about 8 years old. I’ve always liked the dramatic stuff.

Did you have a particularly musical upbringing?

Music has always been a big thing for everyone in my family. My mum and Dad always had parties, they’ve got loads of great stories about the gigs they’ve been to and things they use to get up to. My mum has fantastic taste in music and every day on the way to school and every Saturday on the way to shopping, she would blast the radio and we’d all sing as loud as we could. I also played the violin. I had basic lessons at primary school and out of school I’d go to Friday Fiddlers on a Friday night. My aunty got me an Irish fiddle book and I got a lot of fun out of that. I liked playing the fast fiddle tunes, they made me feel insane. 

What led you into music production?

I’ve been singing and taking it seriously since I was about 14. I’ve been in bands and recorded vocals here and there for other people over the years but in the end I think I got a bit sick of just doing vocals, and I didn’t like having to rely on someone else to make things happen, so I decided to have a go at it on my own. I bought a Casio RZ 1 drum machine, a microbrute and the MPC 1000. It was a risk because I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing but to my surprise I bonded with the machines beautifully. 

Are there any producers or artists who have inspired your production?

I love Kate Bush and tracks like ‘Love On A Real Train’ by Tangerine Dream, ‘Ghosts’ by Japan and Phillip Glass Violin Concerto inspire me. I like the stuff that grips you from the inside regardless of how many times you hear it. 

Are there any particular rituals you go through before you head into the studio?

My studio is in my living room so it’s always there but I wait for it to call me. I never force it. I’ve got to be ‘in the mood’. I leave my machines on all the time, I never turn them off and every so often I get an uncontrollable urge to go over and say hello. When this feeling happens, I like to be on my own. I turn my phone off and even check out of the windows to see if the neighbours have gone out or not. When I feel completely alone, I can disappear in the zone and that’s when it feels magic. There’s usually either a zoot or glass of brandy or cava knocking about as well. 

Do you come in with a destination in mind before starting a jam?

No there’s never really a destination in mind. I don’t go over to my machines thinking I’ll make an ambient track or let’s try a techno beat today. It’s something that just happens. It’s a feeling at that time, in that moment. It’s hard to explain but it feels very honest and real. 

Are you the type of producer to work on a track until it’s perfect, or are you more of an impulsive creator, happy with first takes and sketches?

I’m definitely an impulsive, first take kind of girl. First takes are always the best for me or at least my favourite. I have gone back on tracks when I’ve done a dodgy recording but I always find myself chasing the feeling I got from the first take. First takes are like a photograph, they capture a real moment, something that I felt and something that really happened. I think trying to make something ‘perfect’ is asking for trouble and more often than not, it’s the imperfections that make things special.

Can you talk us through how you might construct a track?

I have everything midi synced to my MPC. Sometimes I might start by making a sequence on one of the synths. Sometimes I’ll start with a bass line or even just one chord, then once I have something to play with, I build the sequence by playing different parts and assigning them to the pads on my MPC. I let the sequence run, sort out the levels and then jam about with the synths and the effects to generate a feeling. I have my percussion and synth lines spread out over a number pads, which I just and open a close to make the structure of the track. 

How much of your material is sample based and how much is original?

All of my material is original, made at home in my living room. I’ve only ever sampled my own stuff back in to my mpc and I’ve only ever done that for the purpose of live shows really. 

What’s the most important bits of kit that make a Sarah Bates track?

I’d have to say the biggies are Arturia Microbrute, MPC 1000, Korg Volca FM and Korg Minilogue. I’ve had the microbrute since day one and I use it in pretty much all of my tracks so that’s definitely a fav. I love the Volca FM and Minilogue, you can get some really beautiful sounds out of them and they’re really easy to use, practical and portable. They are my reliable friends. A lot of my favourite tracks that I’ve made (all but one on the Fantasy Modulation EP) were done with an OB8 but that isn’t mine and I don’t have it anymore. My friend Woody kindly let me use it whilst he was moving house. I was only suppose to have it for a couple of months but I ended up keeping holding of it for a couple of years. I almost cried when he asked for it back. I fell in love with the OB8 even though it was a complete and utter nuisance to work with. It was super temperamental, with a mind of it’s own. I’d be too scared to go to bed because I wouldn’t know what mood it would be in when I woke up the next day but I got sounds out of that which pulled me into other dimensions, sounds that made me cry. That was the synth that really got me and there was no turning back after that.

We’ve seen your live set a few times and been blown away. How was the transition taking your music from studio to stage?

I was scared to death about doing a live set but I was desperate to get out of the house. I applied for a residency with Modular Projects/Push Music and I got picked. Doing the residency helped me get use to packing up my gear, moving it to another place, plugging it all back in and making it sound good again. Once I got to grips with all that and I knew it was doable, I was ready to go. 

I was out one night and I told Ruf Dug & Randy Marsh that I was ready to do a live set. They booked me for Wet Play and Gottwood there and then, I was so happy, I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been going to the Wet Play parties since they began, all the top people I know go there so it was a big deal for me and my mum and dad came to see me and it was at The White Hotel, buzzin. 

I did my first ever live set at Gottwood. I was so scared, I felt sick. No one had heard my music before so I had no idea how it would be received. I’d also never played loud before. My neighbours are quick to complain if I turn it up a notch so I didn’t have a clue how it would sound on the big speakers. It went ok though, it was all a blur.

Fantasy Modulation – your debut EP for Banoffee Pies – came out in December. Can you talk us through how that relationship came about?

Ell from Banoffee Pies got in touch with me via Soundcloud. He said he’d seen my set at Gottwood and was interested in putting something out. I sent him loads of music and a couple of suggestions of tracks that I thought worked well together and then I left it to him to choose. It happened really quickly. We’ve only ever spoke on the phone but I’m hoping that when I get back to the UK, I can do a live thing at one of his parties in Bristol and we can meet properly. 

This mix is comprised of 100% original Sarah Bates material. Could you tell us a bit about it? Any tracks that are particularly special to you?

A lot of the mix is made up of little jams that I did a while ago. One of which was with my friend Joaquin Cornejo (check him out). He’s a music producer from Ecuador but lives in Berlin now. He’s the only person I’ve ever jammed with. He brought his Moog Mother 32 round and we jammed around my Chakra sequence. The original version is coming out soon on Ruf Kutz but it sounds completely different.

My first and only remix so far is on there too. I made that last Easter during the heat wave. I was really drunk because I’d been in my mum’s garden drinking with my grandma all day. I only meant to pop home quickly but the machines called me over. I sampled the stems in to the mpc, added some minilogue and jammed about on the keyboard. I remember sitting down and listening back to it, my head was spinning all over the place and I was buzzin about my piano solo, it felt like I’d been Derren Browned. I don’t even know what notes I’m playing so it really blows my mind when I go in the zone and that happens. I didn’t listen to the original track and I still haven’t heard it so I’m looking forward to that release so I can hear the original and remix’s together. 

The sexy French man that you can hear throughout the mix, I met him in the queue at Tresor in Berlin a couple of years ago. He wrote a poem about us/the night we met and sent it to me on a voice note. I sampled it in to my MPC straight away!

Anything on the horizon for you? Any releases we should know about?

I’ve got the Levi Love remix which I mentioned coming out soon – The track is called Matty’s Room and will be released on Mas O Menos. And the big one for me is the record that I’ve got coming out on Ruf Kutz. I’m really excited about it. There’s some really great tracks on there and I’m making some snazzy videos to go with it, so keep your eye out for that one. 


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