Mike Paradinas
Photo: Courtesy of Planet Mu

Mike Paradinas on His IDM Sound From the 1990s to Now

Electronic music legend Mike Paradinas is having a big year, with the 25th-anniversary edition of the classic Lunatic Harness, as well as the new LP Magic Pony Ride.

Lunatic Harness (25th Anniversary Edition)
Planet Mu
8 July 2022
Magic Pony Ride
Planet Mu
10 June 2022

Mike Paradinas is having a big year. The man behind the IDM project, µ-Ziq (pronounced “music”), and the head of forward-thinking electronic label Planet Mu, released the 25th-anniversary edition of µ-Ziq’s classic 1997 album Lunatic Harness. He also released a new µ-Ziq album titled Magic Pony Ride. The albums are stylistic cousins, built from frenetic breakbeats calling back to jungle circa its mid-’90s peak. They are separated by 25 years, different life circumstances, and different compositional approaches spawned from advancements in recording technology.

“I guess in my own records, I know how everything was made,” says Paradinas, “so the mystery isn’t there.”

For anyone who isn’t Mike Paradinas, Lunatic Harness is charged with mystery. The record exercises the human brain’s propensity for linking synthesized sounds with objects in the corporeal world. Bubbles churn to the ocean’s surface on “Hasty Boom Alert”. Dragonflies whirr beneath “Midwinter Log”. The troubled spirits of a Romantic-era orchestra are captured by a tape recorder on “London”. What sounds like a treated guitar on the title track is really a specially tuned Roland D-50. If there are mushrooms to be found on “Mushroom Compost”, they’re sprouting from a polychromatic mycelium of wrinkled synthesizer bursting through a hiccupped breakbeat that’s been lifted from a 1982 jazz-funk gem.

Yes, that’s the Fat Boys’ slobber reassembled on the title track for rhythmic augmentation. You’re not imagining everything.

Lunatic Harness opens with a bassline puncturing a frantic percussive shuffle. The bass is the nib of a fountain pen popping through construction paper. The drums are a caffeinated chipmunk scuttering about the yard, its nimble claws upending dirt in concentrated blasts, its tail whooshing over blades of grass in a manic dispersal of twigs and pebbles and kinetic energy. The chipmunk is Clyde Stubblefield. He’s breaking it down on his drum kit in 1967 before being jolted up the bpm scale to the elation of ’90s clubbers decked in florid Moschino ravewear, then artfully slashed, stuttered, and recombobulated through Paradinas’ Casio FZ-1. Stubblefield’s bandmate, James Brown, gives an approving chipmunk-pitched grunt further down the track.

But first, we should get to those steel drums. They bounce atop the sound palette with a hyperreal sheen. Each note balloons out in technicolor, a utopian steel drum approximation fashioned from a synthesizer programmed to the lurid colors of a Charles Bell painting. Juice spills out the sides, the melodic byproduct of oversaturated tones.

The best part, appearing twenty-seven seconds into the track, is the doppler-effect train whistle wafting from left to right speaker. The melody puffs through in one undulating swathe, a cloud of slow-attack synthesizer counterbalancing the punchiness of the drums. It’s not really a train whistle, just like the steel drums aren’t steel drums.

Those probably aren’t bowed instruments being played at the close of the track, either. The melody dips and crests with the familiar tones of an orchestral string section. Familiarity isn’t a knock. Clocking in at almost six-and-a-half minutes, “Brace Yourself Jason” layers on gobs of disparate sounds and sound associations. The lush string arrangement blanketing the close of the track is refreshing in its familiar effect, soul-stirring stuff with a centuries-old success rate.

“The songs on Lunatic Harness were all spliced together from different DAT tapes and performances I’d done,” Paradinas says. “[The album] was a combination of improvised mixing, splicing together, and intensive editing of the drums and sequences.

“In those days I was using the Atari [1040ST]. I would load up the track, and I would have all the keyboards around me and play the thing, any live bits I’d got, and I would play this sequence through while doing the mixing. It’s all live performance onto DAT. I’d do several performances of each track, sometimes with different mixdowns, and then sometimes I would change the composition in between. You know, the melody, or stuff like that. There were a few keyboard lines played live. I think there are some lines in ‘Secret Stair’ that might have been played live. I used to do live keyboard quite a lot in those days. Or playing a cassette tape along with it so you get some atmosphere into the track.

“I had a little notebook where I’d written down the times of which versions of tracks I wanted. We went into the studio and put them all together with little crossfades or whatever. It was quite quick because I knew exactly what I wanted and had all the times written down.”

Paradinas can still discern some of the transitions between different versions of tracks. “‘Hasty Boom Alert’, for example, went into a totally different track at the end. You can sort of hear it. I think there are like three tracks in ‘Hasty Boom Alert’, and then a fourth ending that you can really hear because the drums are different when it sort of fades in right at the end. It’s just an ending put onto it because it went into a completely different track with a different melody. Same drum sounds, but I think it turns into a sort of electro track or something, in the end, the one on the DAT. There are lots of fascinating things like that, which were the final versions of what ended up on Lunatic Harness.”

He decided not to remaster the album for its 25th-anniversary edition. “I was really happy with it. It was how I intended it to be.”

Paradinas has a great memory for how he composed the tracks on Lunatic Harness. When asked what he used to scramble Stubblefield’s break on “Brace Yourself Jason”, he lists the particulars with precision. “I was using an Atari 1040ST with Steinberg Cubeat software. This was triggering via MIDI the Casio FZ-1 sampling keyboard, which stored the drum samples. The good thing about the FZ-1 is it has a resonant filter.”

Here he describes an ineffable melody from the title track, something that sounds like it’s coming from a sitar electronically mutated beyond terrestrial scrutability. “That sound is a melody using a patch I created from scratch on the Roland D-50. The D-50 is velocity and pressure sensitive, so it introduces quite a bit of expression in the playing. Also, this patch is not in western tuning; the D-50 had a feature called ‘key follow’ which allowed a primitive form of microtunings, which I used here.”

There’s something charming about Paradinas’ willingness to spill his tricks. Whereas some artists obscure the particulars of creating music beneath a muddle of clichés about serendipity, Paradinas discusses his art with the cool precision of a software programmer. “It’s about results rather than the process,” he says. “I mean, obviously the process affects the results, but it’s the result that matters.”

One wonderful addition to the Lunatic Harness reissue package is the inclusion of a collage insert displaying press reviews and write-ups Paradinas received around the record’s release. For an album splattered in tone color and wildly reconstructed rhythms, it’s no surprise reviewers felt inspired to write some remarkably wacky shit.

One review describes “Approaching Menace” as a blend of “jackboot beats with Star Wars laser fire” and “a monstrous stompathon fit for Darth Vader’s stag night”. Another compares “My Little Beautiful” to “an ancient arcade game fighting the entire staff of Melody FM”. “Jiggery Panky”, a track from the My Little Beautiful EP, is described as having “even more acid-squelching than Timothy Leary’s brain so that you have to part the moistened bullrushes with your bare hands”.  

Critics praised the record’s melodies and noted its maturity compared to previous µ-Ziq releases. “He’s been doodling for a long time,” writes Dom Phillips. “[N]ow he’s painting pictures.”

Magic Pony Ride, released in June of this year, paints a much more idyllic picture than its spiritual predecessor. The album, according to the description on µ-Ziq’s Bandcamp, was inspired by “a weekend getaway [that] found Paradinas riding Icelandic horses across a snowy landscape at dawn.” Paradinas considers it his best work in quite some time.

“I’d done this record [titled Scurlage] last year for Analogical Force, and everyone was saying, ‘Why didn’t you put it on Planet Mu?’ I said, ‘Well because I want to put a good record on Planet Mu.’ I was sort of giving the leftovers to another label, if you’d like. They thought it was good. I thought, ‘Okay, well it’s their label.’ Basically, I didn’t think it was good enough for Planet Mu. [Magic Pony Ride] is the first record I thought was good enough for Planet Mu in a while.

“It’s a bit of a classic rock record. Classic IDM. If IDM was popular, it’d be a popular record.”

The classic rock notion seems to have resonated with listeners, some of whom have lauded the album as a comeback of sorts. Pitchfork’s review even described the record, along with other recent releases from Paradinas’ generation of knob-twiddlers, as “functionally dad rock for lapsed ravers”.

Magic Pony Ride wasn’t meant to be a retro album,” Paradinas says. “I wasn’t trying to record the ’90s, but I think I did, for some people. I suppose that sort of thing, breaks, and melodies, is ’90s to some people. I was just writing what I thought was jungle, but my version of jungle. Not every track is jungle, but you know what I mean. I was trying to write more up-to-date jungle, really. I was just trying to do my own sort of thing.

“There are quite a lot of newer jungle records coming out made by people who weren’t even alive in the ’90s. There must be some nostalgia for that time, but in a way, they can’t really ever completely know the feeling.”

In an interview on the Line Note podcast, Paradinas politely denied any yearning for the days of drum ‘n’ bass yore. Instead, he views his new material as a continuation of the jungle sound, placing it in the context of jungle music being made today.

“I’m pleased with all the new material I’ve written,” he says. “I’m quite confident in all that. I didn’t see it as a nostalgic exercise, really. I saw it as…a continuation of people who are playing footwork, and people like Tim Reaper and Sherelle, and Basic Rhythm are doing jungle again. And I guess people like Astrophonica, and that sort of thing. There’s been a resurgence of rereleasing a lot of old jungle as well. I mean, that has been going on since the nineties, but a lot of younger people are producing jungle. So I was trying to do that rather than as a nostalgic exercise, but with my sense of rhythm and melody it’s not quite jungle.”

Though Magic Pony Ride works with roughly the same sonic blueprint as Lunatic Harness, the album was made entirely on a computer. Paradinas prefers this more streamlined drag-and-drop process to making electronic music to the patchwork approach used, out of necessity at the time, for Lunatic Harness.

“I couldn’t replicate the process of making Lunatic Harness unless I got the same sort of equipment. I don’t have any gear anymore. It’s all just the laptop really. And I prefer to work that way. Even the way I do breaks is completely different than how I used to do breaks, which would have been mapping each single sample hit onto a keyboard. I would be playing live. This time I just dragged a break into a window, cut it up with a little knife symbol, and it will stretch it or whatever, and it does it automatically. It’s so much easier these days.”

The music on Magic Pony Ride sounds easier, taking an airy approach to IDM that makes for a sharp contrast to the anxious palette of Lunatic Harness.

For example, contrast the hyperventilation of “London” from Lunatic Harness with “Uncle Daddy” from Magic Pony Ride. The former is as frantic and jammed as an underground nightclub at the peak of a bad trip. The latter glides over a synth melody as smooth and lush as an open field. The percussion on “London” resembles clubs bludgeoning the eardrums while the melodies invoke the suspense of horror movie kill scenes. The break on “Uncle Daddy” is softer. The drums are layered beneath a reverberant gauze of synthesizers and piano fills and gentle female vocals, never poking or prodding to the forefront.

“Picksing” mostly does away with the drums, opting for an unadulterated dreaminess that, as the title suggests, could slot convincingly into a Cocteau Twins remix record. “Unless” gives the album its first shot of low-end dread, but it’s quickly subsumed by a gush of fluorescent synth vapor. There’s even a song called “Turquoise Hyperfizz,” and yes, that’s what it sounds like. Though the album has points of tension, it is decidedly optimistic. The melodies are downright cheery when considered alongside the disquiet that pervades Lunatic Harness.

“I think in those days I was pretty sad,” Paradinas says. “Or angry rather than sad, when I wrote Lunatic Harness.

If Lunatic Harness makes for a more dynamic listening experience, it’s because the album earns its tension and depth through soaring melodies. There’s the pitch-warbled patient-monitor beeping atop The Honeydrippers’ break on “Catkin and Tinsel”. There’s the deep bass organ grunting to the surface on “Secret Stair Pt. 1”. There’s the synth tones on “Blainville”, pleasant melodies twisted to a harmonic fuss just sinister enough to suggest the dark underbelly of a nuclear-family suburb.

The doppler-effect train whistle on “Brace Yourself Jason” is the record’s first tinge of dissonance, the ghost of pastures past and civilizations crumbled under the funky feet of the dancing populace. The melody is a dissonant specter of a night spent clubbing in technicolor, movement, and action subjected to the effects of thought, raves deteriorated into dreams. The ecstasy of the moment is shrouded by the specter of contemplation, its edges softened through rumination, calling forth subtleties through reflection.

These are melodies you can’t quite get to the bottom of, melodies that urge close-listening and suggest depths still to be plumbed. More than anything, it’s the melodies on Lunatic Harness that make the album sound so fresh 25 years later.