Things have changed drastically for Lady Starlight since her days touring with Lady Gaga. Since meeting Surgeon she’s played live at a string of European techno institutions including Berghain and Freerotation festival, and in the last year has found herself settled in Berlin after leaving New York.
Martin’s unconventional entry into the techno scene over the last few years may have seemed sudden, but this has in fact been just a short chapter of her extensive career in music. When we spoke on Skype ahead of her Farringdon debut this coming weekend, she discussed her artistic transition from rock music to techno, the vision behind her live set, and the connection she shares with each of her musical peers.
Why did you decide to leave New York?
People are stressed out, everything is go go go go go, and it’s just constantly working to pay the rent. I thought about moving to London, but after a temporary stay of 2 months I realised all the problems everyone has in New York were the same. That rat race, after a while, especially as you get older, becomes less appealing. At least in London there are certain standards of living that are higher than New York. Not only is everything really expensive there, but you have flats that are just awful. Nobody has a dishwasher or a dryer, for example. The quality of life is so low for a lot of people.
Where did you first meet Lady Gaga?
It was in New York. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t live there. I actually lived in London after university from around 1999 to 2000, and that was really important for me too.
Were there many other people playing rock music when you started DJing?
There were quite a few, but there wasn't much of a massive scene. And the scene that was there was intertwined with others. There wasn’t enough people to be specialised. In the UK you can go to a serious mod nights, but in the US it would have to be mixed with glam or another genre. I started DJing simply because nobody was playing what I wanted to hear. So I thought ‘I guess I’ll have to do it’.
What was the timeframe between you moving from rock and techno?
I went to my first rave in 1994. I got really into the scene from 1995 to 1997, but everything in the US became disillusioned. In New York especially, it used to be a mix of sexual preferences, gay culture, but then it became very straight and suburban. I eventually did a back and forth and reconnected with my rock roots. It was more experimental music to me. I started making noise, and loop-based soundscapes and stuff. I realised ‘if I just put a kick drum on this, it’ll be great.’ As a female there wasn’t a lot of encouragement of thinking you could do that. So when I first got into techno I wasn’t thinking about that. Then as I got older, I thought ‘oh, I could make this’. I’m really into dance, so I was looking at it from that perspective. Even though I make techno that isn’t the most dancefloor.
"I have flashes of inspiration: I go full on into one thing, then full on into something else."
Was there a specific point where you said to yourself ‘I want to start playing techno’?
When I met Stefani [Lady Gaga] I was really into metal and prog rock. From prog I got interested in electro, then that was a natural progression into techno, and I started collecting records. I have these flashes of inspiration, which is why if you look at my career it’s like ‘OK, wow that’s different from before’. I go full on into one thing, then full on into something else. It sounds a little bit crazy but it’s like this flash that I can’t help and I think ‘that’s what I have to do’. It came to me and was like ‘I have to do techno’.
Do you see any conscious parallels between techno and any kind of hardcore rock-based music?
I don’t really see it so much. In techno I’m a fan of Jeff Mills and Mike Banks. It was like ‘OH!’ when I first heard them. What I connect to with older techno is the way that people made it, and how it sounds like a person making it. There’s things that are wrong with it, and there’s an artist making it. So I’m very much connecting with the artist – maybe that’s the connection. If you’re into rock, you also connect with the artist. It’s really important that you hear some humanity in the music.
I hear a lot of that 90s techno sound particularly in your recent EP.
The techno I like is really fast, I tried to make things slower and just thought ‘this doesn’t work’. I thought ‘what am I missing?’ and realised it had to be faster. I've tried to make things sound different, but I realised they always end up sounding like that. It also comes from being American – there’s a hustle, and a bit more funkiness to it.
Do you think you learned anything new from playing ‘fast’ techno to an audience that weren’t used to it?
My whole career has been a bit of a challenge. I’m very comfortable with people not really getting what I’m doing: imagine what I’m doing in front of a large pop audience, so there’s really no amount of rejection that I can’t take. At the end of the day I just can’t do anything other than what sounds right to me. It’s a bit of a challenge, but if you don’t just do what sounds right, you owe that to the audience in some way. To be yourself and deliver what you have to deliver. There’ll be people in the audience who are like ‘this does need to be faster’. In general too, I’m certain that things are getting faster for sure. Maybe not at 140 but the average BPM has definitely increased in the last few years.
Do you often go out to see other people play?
Sure, that’s the great thing about living in Berlin. I live 10 minutes from Berghain, so it’s like ‘OK, I’ll go over there’, and going to see friends play. I love it during the day, and the odd hours where you can go and have a normal day
Has the attention you’ve received since meeting Surgeon felt sudden in any way or does it seem natural?
Our relationship is so organic and so normal. He reminds me of my brother a lot so it was like ‘hey, I totally know you’. So everything that happened does feel totally natural. Maybe from an outside perspective it’s like going from 0 to 100 in techno, but I’ve had such a long career in music that to me I have experience in other ways, so it doesn’t feel overwhelming.
"It’s really important that you hear some humanity in the music."
How have your live performances been so far?
It’s been fantastic. All the live shows I did on Gaga’s tour, the ArtRave, I actually counted and it was like 80 shows. If you added that up, to say 2 club shows a weekend, it works out to around a year of performing live. It’s maybe more than that, so I’m super comfortable with live techno. So it’s great to get into gear, and just keep growing with the live show. It's super fun, and even if it’s stressful there’s so much excitement.
Do you get excitement from improvisation in particular?
Definitely. If you’re using modular, you have to accept that you kind of don’t know what’s going to happen, because you turn it on and it’s never the same as before. It kind of decides for you, so you can’t have a tight rein on it. With techno, that fits my aesthetic: if you’re doing a live performance, it should sound live. If there are things that are maybe a little bit wrong, you should have the journey. I like the idea that with improvisation the crowd is with me. People kind of root for you, you know like when DJ sets go a little off, people are like ‘oh yes, they got it!’. I think crowds appreciate live sets because they see that you’re doing something live, and they relate to it as a human being.
What do you bring with you to your live sets?
It’s ever changing, which is a big mistake but still. I just recently got this new sampling module, which is what I’m doing this afternoon. I’m going to work with this sampler so I might not need it, most of my sequencing and my sampling on the Elektron machine drum. I don’t use it for drums at all, but I love the way it samples things: it sounds so bad, it’s genius. So I love this machine for its unintended purpose. And I love working with an Elektron sequencer. Once you get into it, you can’t use anything else. So that’s the cornerstone of my setup, then also the MFB drum machine – they’ve both been a part of my live set for a while. In the last year I’ve been getting into modular. It takes time, so I’m really getting a grasp on the concepts of patching. Now it’s becoming more of the centrepiece. I love Strymon guitar pedals, so I’m also using a lot of delay and reverb.
Is it all about challenging yourself when you make changes to the set-up?
Absolutely. As I keep progressing it’s like ‘oh I’ve found a better way’. The more you do it, the more critical your ears become and it’s like ‘actually, that’s shitty’. I love learning new things, whether in gear or anything else. If I’m not learning I’m bored. But the best part about making techno is there’s so many things you can do. The fun part is wondering ‘what would happen if I did this, this, this and this’ – that’s the fun part.
What did you use to make your EP on Stroboscopic Artefacts?
I used machine drums and my Strymon effects. It’s very limited, but that’s the only way. I’ll never get anything done if I ever have too much else. The machine drum is limited to 48 samples I can use at one time, you can have several, but there’s only 48 you can use. So I’m restricted to 48 samples that I’ve recorded, possibly badly. It’s very limited, but it’s more fun and more challenging.
When did you first meet Lucy?
I didn’t meet him until after. I’d always been a fan of his, I just really like his interdisciplinary approach, and he’s very open to things being part of techno that most people don’t associate with it. He’s very open minded and I always appreciate his dynamic body of work. Even though our music doesn’t come out sounding the same, the attitude and approach makes me feel akin to him in some way. I think it was surprising for most Stroboscopic Artefacts fans, because my tracks don’t sound like anything else on the label. I was honoured that he was open to it. It happened organically, even though we didn’t know each other it worked and it was great.
‘Organically’ is exactly how you described your relationship with Surgeon too.
I can’t make calculated career moves – it has to feel natural. It was the same with Stefani [Lady Gaga] and me. It’s just following whatever, and feeling connected on some level.
It sounds like being in Berlin has helped that.
It was the best decision I ever made. To have the support of people around you who understand you, is fantastic. It feels like a real community. In New York the feeling was so isolated, and seeing people at the airport for example, is awesome. It’s very supportive, and really good. Everybody I’ve met here is awesome and very humble.
Will there ever be another thing that inspires you and make you change direction again?
The one thing I can be certain of is my inspiration changes. The great thing about techno is even though it appears limited, you have an opportunity really bring so many ideas in. This is the first time I’ve made music, and that’s a totally new thing for me. Even though my inspirations will change, and the techno I make will sound different, I don’t see myself picking up and starting, say, jazz. There’s so many possibilities that I won’t find myself bored any time soon.