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Do The Strand: A Catch-Up With Phil Kieran

Ahead of its final live performance of The Strand Live this Saturday, 20th April, Belfast producer and techno legend Phil Kieran talks to Andrew Moore about constant evolution, AI’s impact on music and his masterfully ambitious new studio album

Photo by Sean McMahon

Originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of The Thin Air

Buy tickets to The Strand Live, featuring Phil Kieran and the Ulster Orchestra, here

It’s 5:32pm on a grey Monday afternoon in Belfast and electronic composer Phil Kieran is quietly working away in his studio. Located in the old Strand Cinema – and the new Strand Arts Centre – on Hollywood Road (one of only two independent cinemas left in Belfast), it’s hard not to romanticise through a Wes Anderson-inspired lens. The building is a beautiful ruin – Belfast’s own Grand Budapest Hotel – and it’s where Kieran has been checked in for the last five years producing soundtrack and score work for film (Nightride on Netflix), radio (The Northern Bank Job on BBC R4) and theatre (East Belfast Boy).

The electronic music producer has a back catalogue spanning five studio albums, 90 singles and EPs, and countless remixes and collaborations with acts as diverse as Green Velvet and Roman Flügel to Nitzer Ebb, Depeche Mode and David Holmes. Having left his mark on the techno landscape, Kieran’s gaze now turns to his most ambitious and personal project to date – The Strand Cinema.

“It was made during COVID-19”, says Kieran. “I’ve had mixed feelings about telling people that. I don’t know about you, but when I hear that an album was made during lockdown I throw up in my mouth a little bit. Not another fucking one! But that’s when it was made; I would cycle over to the studio on my own. Everything was shut down, not just in the building but on the street too. No cars, it was the strangest dystopian feeling.”

“There was so much going on,” he adds. “A friend died of cancer around that period. Andrew Weatherall, a hero of mine, then died in April. What the fuck is going on here? Financially everything closed in. I don’t want to sound cheesy saying this, but when things hit rock bottom sometimes out of the ashes you can create something meaningful and positive. The album was originally going to be called Music For No Purpose, because there was nothing. It wasn’t to try and sell records or to make people dance, I just needed to get it out of me.”

As the industry went up in flames around him, a creative liberation was unlocked. No reason for anything anymore, Kieran started by creating a sample bank of previously recorded live musicians and a theme began to emerge. “I wanted to create natural sounds through machines”, he says. “It became this theme, things are out of time and not quantized – it’s as loose as possible to the point of falling apart but there is something holding it together. Things are slightly out of tune to give a blurred image of the sound, a wider 3D feel.”

This relationship with nature and technology has inspired the creation of a full live show alongside the album release alongside the Ulster Orchestra and eleven commissioned visual artist works that interpret the past, present and future of the merging of the natural ecosystem and machine, ranging from traditional film edited from Northern Ireland Screen’s Digital Archive to original videography from LA-based director Frederico Marzio Vitetta (famous for skateboarding films like Wet Dream with Spike Jonze) and CGI from BAFTA-nominated Kris Kelly. 

“I started mostly with a blank canvas”, he says, on the selection process. “I’m glad I didn’t choose just one person to do the videos because I feel like we might have only got three or four good ones. With one person, ideas naturally start to dry up, whereas with eleven different people, it’s left quite open. I provided everyone with a brief and explained the process behind making it. I always imagined looking at a sunset or a flower and hacking it, manipulating reality in some way.”

The relationship between technology and the creative industry has been thrust into the spotlight in the last number of years, as AI technology becomes more readily available than ever for everything from creating album artwork to writing press releases. Undoubtedly a great tool, it does feel like it is also a major threat to those industries which have already been hit incredibly hard by the pandemic. Is AI a concern or should we embrace it?

“I’m mindful that pioneers like Delia Derbyshire and Wendy Carlos came from a scientific background,” says Kieran. “They used their experimentation to create new machines and ways of communicating with sound that the music establishment didn’t accept as art or music, so in a way I’m curious where AI could go.”

“Music has a feeling to it,” he adds. “Techno is like that, or punk. David Guetta loves AI. Of course he does. People have been copying a formula or template as a shortcut to success for years anyway. Some people are hungry for anything that will replicate the successful past, but it could also be used as a tool – maybe you could create some weird sound to sample and build a track around.”

“I can’t imagine AI making something as good as Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, you know? Nick Cave was talking about it too. How could you ever recreate a song that defines an era or moves people to tears? I don’t know, maybe it can. It would really be frightening if something could tap into that kind of resonance.” We both nervously laugh.

Now with the album under his belt, a live show with the Ulster Orchestra in early March, and a career spanning more than two decades, you could forgive Kieran for taking a break, but with creative liberation comes the need to create, and he’s feeling that now more than ever.

“When I started making techno it was always about the future”, he says. “You would listen to Artificial Intelligence on Warp Records and think about the future in this really optimistic way. Like, fuck! This is the music we’re going to be making and this is what’s going to happen.”

“I’m just trying to find what’s interesting and creative, wherever that is.” Andrew Moore

The Strand Cinema by Phil Kieran is out now