Steevio On Modular Synths, Warehouse Raves and Freerotation

Toby Wareham talks modular synths, warehouse raves and Freerotation with Steevio.

To many budding techno producers, modular synthesis is the holy grail. A dense, complex method of producing electronic music, it relies on the user to patch together its component parts via a mess of multi-coloured cables, forfeiting the streamlining effect of conventional synths ‘all in the box’ hardwiring. Indeed, with modular synths, you do it all yourself: piloting solo a complex system of filters, oscillators, amplifiers, envelopes and LFOs. The results can be as musically exhilarating as the process behind it can be time-consuming, and the logistics of gigging with a modular rig can be tedious.

Witness a recent Facebook post from Blawan, which demonstrates the day-to-day drudgery of travelling with a modular setup. Yet at its best, a modular synth performance excites because the music you hear is truly new. Although many modular techno producers use sequencers to save patterns and patches, a live modular performance is loose, unpredictable, and largely improvised. In a techno scene that often favours functionality, and puts a high price on just playing the classics, dancing to electronic music produced on the fly is a revelatory experience.

Along with co-founding Freerotation festival with his partner Suzybee, Steevio is best known for being one of the UK’s foremost practitioners of modular techno. “For me it is never tedious or time-consuming”, Steevio says. “It’s a total joy”. It’s not for nothing he was once referred to on a particularly geeky online forum as a ‘mysterious dreadlocked free-party organiser holed up in North Wales with a killer setup’. Although Steevio still produces music at home on a full modular rig - one he’s been slowly building since 2009 - nowadays, his increasingly busy touring schedule has forced him to compromise. “The full modular is way too big for flying”, he explains. “So I have a hybrid analogue / digital rig which is mostly what I use for gigs. It’s very reliable, and it rarely gives me headaches”. Consisting of “various minimal bits and pieces, stems and loops” pre-loaded into Ableton, this hybrid rig would still make most live techno artists’ eyes water, and allows Steevio to improvise with a smaller modular and Moog over the top.

If there’s one bit of advice I could give to producers starting on the modular journey, it would be to go all modular as soon as you can afford it. Computers really hold you back.

Steevio has not always been a mysterious dreadlocked modular synthesis wizard. “I started out as a drummer in the late 1960s”, he says, “playing mostly Heavy Blues rock stuff - think Led Zeppelin, or Free”. In the 1980s, he switched drums for bass, and joined a succession of post-punk and New Wave bands, before dipping his toes in the electronic music world in 1983. “I was co-running a hip-hop / breakdance club in Newcastle called The Sidewalk. As a side project, I formed an electrofunk band called Acid. My job was bass guitar and drum machine.” This dalliance with electronic production would soon develop into a full-blow affair. In the 1980s he played guitar for “acid / spacerock / psychedelic / grunge fusion” band Dead Flowers, whose synth player “kept up the connection with electronics”, and by the early 1990s, Steevio had “totally fallen in love with techno”. Running The Sidewalk also crystallised Steevio’s second love - throwing parties. As the 90s progressed, he became increasingly involved in Newcastle’s free warehouse party scene. “It was mostly banging techno, and promoted by word of mouth - no flyers or anything or we would have been busted”. Eventually, they were, with riot police and helicopters swooping in, and the collective’s soundsystems and records confiscated.

Steevio needed a venue. Baskerville Hall - a striking stately home made famous by Sherlock Holmes, and known latterly as one of the Welsh countryside’s eminent party venues - was the perfect fit. “It was the home of raves and techno parties for years before we started there”, Steevio explains. “One of them was a friend of ours who ran a party called Spank there for ten years. Some of the now Freerotation residents used to play there. When he decided to knock it on the head, we jumped at the chance of the vacant slot.” Thus Freerotation was born, a lovingly curated annual festival based at Baskerville Hall, which for a small community of techno fans has become the most anticipated weekend of the year. At Freerotation’s core is its residents - a tightly-knit crew of low key but high quality artists that includes Sam Watson, Duckett, Grimes Adhesif, Tom Demac, the Ellis brothers and Leif. “Those guys are totally integral to Freerotation” Steevio says. “It’s always been a family affair. It’s an honour to work with the whole crew and watch them progress”. Indeed, it was Freerotation resident Earthdoctor who first approached Baskerville Hall to host the party there. “Without him”, Steevio admits, “Freerotation would never have happened”.

What does the future hold for Freerotation? The festival remains largely a two person job, with Steevio handling the programming, and Suzybee orchestrating the design and visual elements. As the pair’s gig schedule grows busier, Steevio admits it’s become harder to find time for a festival which takes up “seven long days a week for most of the year”. Equally, as his festival’s fame grows, and ticket sales remain capped at modest 650, how to maintain that unbeatable Freero atmosphere year on year? The answer to both questions centres around ‘Teulu’, Welsh for ‘family’, and the operative concept of Freerotation. “Every year we lose some people”, Steevio says. “They start having kids or works takes over. So we replenish the membership with new people who are invited by existing members, and keep the family connection”. Similarly, the festival’s workload is now shared around the core Freerotation family that were right there from the start. “It was me and Suzy who organised everything until Tom Ellis began doing the website, and gradually he has taken over more of the admin, especially the ticketing and membership stuff.” Steevio is keenly aware of how important Freerotation’s teulu has become in every aspect of the festival.

The plan is to make [Freerotation] a worker’s co-operative eventually, and we are well on the way to that goal.

To Steevio, a perennially modest character who’d rather be stuck behind a tangle of wires than taking centre-stage, the critical attention that he, Suzybee and their Freerotation now garners is a humbling experience. “I’ve been involved in music all my life,” he says, “it’s all I’ve ever done for 40 years. We are honoured to receive shouts from the likes of RA, and the whole scene keeps us believing in humans in these challenging times.” He concludes with a mantra that might’ve come from any point of his long, decorated career. “All we are interested in is using dance music as a vehicle to spread a message of empathy and togetherness, no matter what form that takes”.

Steevio & Suzybee play a live modular set at The Pickle Factory on 14th April